Strangers Drowning, Larissa MacFarquhar, author and narrator
The book addresses the do-gooders of the world, those who place the needs of others ahead of their own, those that want to bring compassion to everyone in need, those that want to save others regardless of the risk to themselves, those that do it instinctively and those that do it by choice. In short, there are several categories of do-gooders and she explains how all types of do-gooders are perceived and why. Some are ridiculed, some are pariahs, and some are occasionally honored and revered. The way they are viewed has changed over time. At one time they were abhorred as abnormal, unstable, needy, unbalanced, but today their behavior is more accepted and appreciated. Schadenfreude often played a role in judging them. Also, no one wanted Jiminy Cricket on their shoulders all the time, judging their ability to be “as good”, as they were. How much “do-gooding” was enough? The author describes all types, but concentrates on those with the ability to totally self-sacrifice even at the expense of family and friends which is at the extreme end of do-gooders. They are those that perceive their journey as noble, caring for those in greater need, greater in number, in greater pain. Throughout the book she asks a variation of this question: “Who would you save, your mother or two strangers?” In this way she segregates into separate groups, the types of do-gooders that exist. It is well researched with references, and well known scholars and professionals are quoted to back up conclusions, but none seemed hard and fast. I thought it was really well written, clear and easy to follow, but I still felt that it was a bit too scholarly in some ways and too much of an opinion piece in another.
The sciences that study behavior do not necessarily have hard and fast rules or conclusions. I struggled to find a reason for the research and still am not sure what the author’s purpose was in writing this book. I feel almost as if she started out with a negative approach against people who were “extreme do-gooders”. She points out that doing good for someone else necessitated a choice of doing less for yourself, or in some cases if you helped strangers it was at the expense of your own loved ones, or perhaps the do-gooder only helped to serve their own need to help, rather than helping for the sake of the service itself. Still, what does it matter? If the person helping is getting satisfaction and the person receiving is positively affected, does the reason for doing the good works really matter?
The book is based on real people, in several countries, from several different backgrounds who perform a variety of different acts of self sacrifice in the interest of helping others. In some cases, the names have been changed, but most accomplished great things, even when the results were not long lasting. Some of the efforts may seem less concerning or worthy to the reader and some of the sacrifices may seem too far fetched to be in the realm of normal behavior. Such acts like donating organs to strangers rather than relatives, taking in or adopting dozens of children and families, fighting for animal rights, the rights of chickens, starting an adoption agency, becoming a monk, living a subsistence existence, and starting a leper colony are addressed. She addresses the subject of women who love too much and codependency. Whose need are they serving, the dependent’s or the codependent’s? She even addresses the needs of some social workers who feel they must give up their own lives to help others and feel guilty if they do not. She calls them the moral delusions of aid workers. They are satisfying their own need, their own guilt, their own inability to bring balance into their life’s choices and believe they have to give up their own lives to help others because they are less deserving. Surely this might be true in some cases, but I wondered, does that lessen their self sacrifice or their accomplishments? Can you really place a negative value on someone who is doing good regardless of their reasons? Apparently some do; they view the do-gooder almost as their alter ego, the alter ego that they cannot measure up to, the alter ego judging them as failures for not being as good a do-gooder.
She also addressed donors of organs to strangers. She said that sometimes the relationship between donor and recipient got complicated. She raised the question of why would someone would give up their organ to a stranger while they were alive? She said that organ donors in that category have to be psychoanalyzed before they are given permission to do so. She said that over time, the donators and organ donations have ceased being viewed as gifts from unstable donors and are viewed as more normal behaviors and contributions. She raises the issue of moral equivalents for do-gooders. Which is the greater cause, which is the better cause? Are chickens as important as humans? Are family needs greater than the needs of strangers? These are some of the questions she poses? Are aid workers self serving? Is helping a pernicious disease? Is it a choice or a need?The do-gooders in the book are of the extreme kind who put everyone and everything before their own needs. Each individual she reviewed was damaged in some way or came from damaged, dysfunctional families dealing with mental illness, alcoholism, fanaticism, and drugs. They were idealists for their own specific causes, chickens, orphans, women, lepers.
As you read, I think you must accept her premise that extreme do-gooders are not happy unless they are helping others, helping those that suffer and go unnoticed. They are not simply performing acts of kindness. Their happiness and reward comes from the joy they bring to others, not from themselves or their own lives. Many eventually become aware of their own needs and modify their self-destructive behavior. They believed they were bad and had to become better. Their guilt consumed them. The idea of pseudo-altruism was introduced as opposed to sincere efforts to help as in universal altruism. It was suggested that altruism is a form of selfishness to insure one’s own survival. Some in the field of psychology equated altruism with feelings of guilt or masochism and even sadomasochism. They described the altruists as compulsive. Did they lose their sense of balance in favor of complete sacrifice working for the benefit of strangers, others, whose need they believed was greater? Were they required to give up everything in order to be good? They grappled with those kinds of questions. How much giving was enough, how much sacrifice was necessary to make life better for everyone and everything? Was it even possible?
I never quite understood how these people actually supported themselves or their causes, and actually, I felt that the subject and the subjects were over analyzed. When did kindness, in any form, become something that was considered dysfunctional? I would like to pose that question to Mother Theresa, the sainted queen of “doing good”.