Skip to main content
book review

Getty Images/iStockphoto

I have long wanted to see more serious study of goodness – or, to put it in more precise terms, of people who make good ethical choices in difficult situations, especially situations in which powerful social forces are seeking to drive them in the other direction. Much energy and intelligence has been invested in the question of what makes people do certain bad things, why we kill or steal or commit adultery; even more energy, unfortunately, has been invested by political power-holders into discovering ways to make otherwise decent people kill, harm, hate and resent each other. But we don't think as much about what makes people do good things.

So I was interested in the premise of Larissa MacFarquhar's Strangers Drowning, a study of people she calls "extreme do-gooders." They are a varied lot – an American woman who practises as a midwife in rural Nicaragua, a couple who systematically give half their income to carefully chosen charitable causes, a woman who adopted 20 children in need, three men who founded and ran a leprosy clinic, a man in Japan who has devoted himself to suicide prevention.

MacFarquhar presents the subjects of these short profiles to us as anomalies. Actually, most of them strike me as people who have lived active, varied and satisfying lives, and lives that are not really that unusual, taken all in all. They have individual talents and interests, wishes and hopes. They are creative problem-solvers. Some are motivated, at least in part, simply by having a low boredom threshold. They mostly seem to be – and MacFarquhar, to her credit, wants us to see that they are – reasonably happy; their personal relationships are imperfect, but overall fairly successful. They all make it clear that they have lived these particular lives, finally, because they wanted to and chose to, because in the end, they have done what brought them joy, even if this has also involved a good deal of exhaustion and frustration along the way.

The least happy person she profiles is, in fact, the one who is doing the least, while worrying obsessively about ethical issues in a slightly paralyzed way.

MacFarquhar is generally well-disposed towards her subjects. She takes on, and takes apart, some of the common negative assumptions – that they are somehow mentally ill or "co-dependent," that they let their own children starve, that they do more harm than good. She believes, in the end, that they really are just people who make ethical choices, choices of an essentially rational nature, and that the world would be much worse without them.

But it is always "them." She very carefully draws a line, and draws it over and over, between "them" and an assumed "us," the apparently selfish many, the regular people, the real world.

Strangers Drowning is a well-written and serious book, and one worth reading. But by defining the category of "do-gooder" so stringently that only a few manage to qualify for it, and by setting up a binary division, constantly reinforced, between these "do-gooders" and all the "ordinary people" who allegedly only extend their full concern to family and friends (though they may "have a worthy job" or "volunteer at a charity"), MacFarquhar is, to some degree, using them to let everyone else off the hook. It is good, she says, that they should exist. We need them. But you can't have too many of them. And they are, precisely, "them." Not you. So you do not need to worry, so much, about your own life. Not really.

The title is drawn from a philosophical problem – if your mother were drowning, and two strangers were also drowning, and you could save either your mother or two strangers, what would you do?

MacFarquhar's binary division depends on seeing "do-gooders" as the people who would save two strangers and, possibly, let their own mothers drown. This is a fairly effective way of convincing most, if not all, readers that they are not destined to be "do-gooders." But I am not sure this is a particularly useful framework for thinking about real people. This scenario, a gimmick of the mind, must include, among other things, a postulate that your mother and the two strangers are in precisely equal danger of drowning, the certainty that you can save at least someone, and at the same time a prohibition on trying to save all; it is, of course, a situation the likes of which could never actually occur in the real world, not unlike the many scenarios people have presented to me over the years involving Hitler, my grandmother, a gun that has magically fallen into my hand, and in some cases an airplane.

But human lives are not lived in scenarios constructed like mathematical equations; human lives are made in a patchwork fashion out of guesses, improvisations, hopeful attempts, bad choices, desires and renunciations, uncertainties and half-measures and random accidents.

Most of us want, to put it in the simplest terms, both to be happy and to be good. Sometimes we can achieve both of these things at the same time, sometimes we can achieve neither. And all of this is as true – and as obviously true – of MacFarquhar's examples as of anyone else. Despite the book's title, most of them have handled the family/stranger balance fairly skillfully; some have troubled marriages, because people do, but there are no drowned mothers in these profiles, no terribly neglected children (though there are some adult children chagrined by their parents' odd behaviour).

"Do-gooders," perhaps, are more than anything else the people who refuse to accept the artificial terms of the problem, who break the rules of the game.

And there is no need to go exploring among "extreme do-gooders," people who can be presented as bizarre departures from the norm, to find people who have acted out of a wider caring, who have seen with vivid sharpness the pain of the world, and responded. Expanding the circle of concern beyond family and friends is not an exotic thing to do, or a project reserved only for those energetic individuals who will give over their whole lives to one singular cause.

The fact that someone in the world has adopted 20 children is interesting, but it does not mean that adopting one abused or disabled child is not also an act of profound love, filled with difficulty and reward, both ordinary and absolutely extraordinary at the same time.

Sometimes it is a matter of a single moment. In 1999, as Indonesian militias waged a campaign of terror against civilians in East Timor, United Nations officials in New York decided to pull the international staff out of their mission in Dili. Hundreds of East Timorese had taken shelter there, and the decision to evacuate would likely have killed them. But some of the journalists in the UN compound, and then some of the staff, began to circulate a letter asserting their refusal to leave. Eventually, when enough of them had signed it, they gave it to the mission commander. He agreed; the evacuation did not take place. I know some of those people; they are flawed, decent, selfish, sometimes reckless, sometimes silly, ordinary people, who have gone on to do other things, whose moment of stubborn courage changed history, but will likely be forgotten by history.

They were not and are not "extreme do-gooders," and they did not think about philosophical propositions. They saw a situation in front of them, on a night of gunfire, in a building filled with strangers in need, and they chose.

Sometimes it is about choosing a different loyalty – the Jewish women in Jerusalem, the Serbian women in Belgrade, who stood, who stand, on the streets in silence, wearing black, in mourning for the dead of the "enemy" nation. I remember a workshop once in the former Yugoslavia, where we, women from the different Balkan nations and from countries far away, tried to puzzle out what it was that made them able to choose this, to resist the violent tide of nationalism, and none of us managed to understand it, really, for they were and are very ordinary women, with ordinary jobs, families, histories, things they would rather be doing than standing on the street being spat at by passers-by. Yet they are something astonishing, too – that small resistant group which could not be convinced to hate.

I want to understand why, I want to know what it is that makes some people able to stand silently in opposition, when all the forces of their world would try to make them hate their neighbour. But they are so ordinary. So entirely like everyone else.

Sometimes – often – it is a life of small unremarkable choices, getting up before sunrise week after week to serve food to hungry people, joining circles of support for ex-prisoners, working nights in a legal-aid clinic or a community health centre, helping an indigenous community take soil and water samples to test for pollution, cleaning up city parks, going into the field with a conflict resolution team for a month or a year, doing these things consistently, quietly, constantly. Making this the shape of a self. Doing all of these things while being confused, irritable, boring, ordinary people who eat potato chips and ride bikes, who read bad novels sometimes and gossip when they shouldn't, people who get tired and make mistakes and want things that aren't good for them or other people, who don't always live up to their own standards, and know that they are not living a life of complete ethical consistency, but simply a life.

Of course, at this precise moment, as I write this in September, it is impossible to read the title of this book and not think of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old refugee whose body washed up on a Turkish beach after he and his family got into a small boat in a desperate attempt to find safety. The response of the world to the photograph of the dead child is demonstration enough that we are all, under the right circumstances, capable of having our hearts broken by the pain of strangers, capable of wishing to save the strangers drowning.

That has never been the problem. The real problem is turning that care into sustainable action, creating communities of greater care, channelling the emotional impulse into change in the real world, especially when it comes at a social cost. MacFarquhar's people have found their own striking ways of doing this; so have many others whose lives are less journalistically appealing, less "extreme."

Goodness remains, perhaps, a bit of a mystery; but maybe above all it is precisely about saying, "This dilemma is false. I do not have to choose between my mother and two strangers, and I will not." Perhaps it's about saying to the person setting the problem, "Hey, if you jump in with me, maybe we can save all three."

Reverend Maggie Helwig, a novelist, poet, arts organizer and human rights activist, is rector of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields in Toronto.

Interact with The Globe