Magazine article The Christian Century

Too Good for This World

Magazine article The Christian Century

Too Good for This World

Article excerpt

Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help

By Larissa MacFarquhar

Penguin Press, 336 pp., $27.95

If three people are drowning, your mother in one location and two strangers in another, should you save your mother or the two strangers? Most people believe you should follow your natural inclination and save your mother. But some follow the argument of influential utilitarian Peter Singer, who claimed that your moral duty is to save the two strangers and thus double the good your action causes.

Larissa MacFarquhar, a staff writer at the New Yorker, explores extreme altruism with elegance and empathy. She uses interview-based stories to set forth detailed descriptions of people she calls "do-gooders"--those who are willing to sacrifice family, friends, wealth, and their own well-being to meet the needs of strangers. Interspersed with these engaging stories, she raises psychological and ethical questions, explores the motives and mental health of do-gooders, and examines how others respond to extreme altruism.

One of MacFarquhar's most compelling stories is about Dorothy Granada, a Mexican-Filipino woman who grew up in central Los Angeles. She was neglected by her mother and abused by her father. During a church service in 1978, Dorothy was overwhelmed by Jesus' call to resist violence and stand with the poor. She joined a group opposing war, the death penalty, and nuclear power. After being arrested and jailed several times, she met fellow activist Charles Gray.

When they met, Charles had given away nearly all his money but still craved more sacrifice. He and his first wife had given away half their capital and turned their house into a commune. Still feeling guilty about having so much when so many had so much less, he had begun living on what he called the World Equity Budget, which he calculated to be about $1,200 a year. His wife refused to join him in living on the WEB. Charles chose extreme poverty, divorcing his wife of 30 years.

Dorothy fell in love with Charles, quit her job, sold her house, gave everything away except two boxes of books and a bicycle, and began living on the WEB with Charles. He taught her how to Dumpster dive for food. After living for a while in one room in a shared house, they decided they should live on the street so that they could give away their rent money to people who desperately needed it.

Dorothy and Charles moved to Nicaragua in 1985. There they protected members of the Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo, composed mostly of wives and mothers of men who had been disappeared. Later Dorothy worked in a clinic, where for over 20 years she provided free medical services to the needy, often at great risk to her own life and health. At age 84 she declared that there was still much she wanted to do.

The extremism of Dorothy and Charles's lifestyle is not unique. Another couple profiled in the book adopted 20 distressed or special needs children (after having two children of their own). Another couple founded a leprosy colony in rural India. Their dogs were eaten by panthers, but their two small children survived. One woman offered to donate her kidney to a complete stranger, leading her to wonder what other body parts might save the lives of strangers. …

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