Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices and the Overpowering Urge to Help by Larissa MacFarquhar is easily the most provocative book on helping I’ve read in years. I use the term “helping” here because identifying this book as one on nonprofits, volunteerism, philanthropy or social justice is too limiting to cover the scope of ideas presented. It touches on all of them and much more. Equally important: In a world of books offering tidy endings and top 3 (5, 10 or some other number) things You Need to Do When You Put Down This Book, Strangers Drowning leaves all that behind. Rather, it raises judgement-free questions, challenges and thinking around the people that populate the world of help; particularly several at the far extreme.
If I’m late to the game and you’ve read the book, stop here. If you haven’t, consider a few of the questions raised:
- Are “do-gooders” (the author’s term for helpers) unique, just like everybody else but with a deeper conscience -- or at the margin, downright crazy? If you read Strangers, that last possibility may cross your mind;
- How do we square our own definitions of a good, healthy, and productive life with other cultures when we offer help? Do we have the right and responsibility to impose our definitions on others – or is it quite the opposite? This is particularly relevant when considering the work of international development organizations;
- Perhaps most intriguing is how we look at the overall distribution of wealth in the world. Is it enough to simply give donations to targeted organizations that appeal to our passions? Or do we have a larger responsibility to sacrifice our wealth for the greater good? In everyday terms, if I have $100 to spend which won’t incrementally improve my life, is it my responsibility to put that $100 back into the world to help others – even if I’ve made many other charitable contributions? How do we define these tradeoffs?
This is just a sampling of course. What I appreciated was that the author doesn’t allow for or even attempt to offer simple answers or solutions. Rather, Strangers, through its blend of bios and philosophy, may intrigue, confuse, provoke and even inspire you. Since I don’t want to appear to be directly marketing the book, I’ll leave it to you to find the book (a simple search will get you there). If you take my suggestion, I’d welcome your thoughts - email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.