Kate Womersley

Beyond the call of duty: the kindness of strangers is a pleasing mystery

Larissa MacFarquhar’s fascinating history of extreme selflessness

When I applied to medical school, an experienced doctor offered me some advice: ‘Don’t give them reason to think you’re a “wounded healer”. They’re suspicious of that.’ The term is Carl Jung’s, by which he meant that personal difficulty is a powerful spur for joining a caring profession, but the results of such motivations are not always constructive. If you appear too altruistic, questions may surface about whether you might, in some way, be damaged.

So what about those people who don’t just do their job, but dedicate their lives to helping others? The New Yorker staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar examines our ambivalence about goodness in her brilliantly thoughtful new book. Heroes, Pollyannas, saints, sentimentalists, killjoys, people-pleasers, martyrs, call them what you will, Strangers Drowning interweaves the history and philosophy of altruism with real-life stories of ‘do-gooders’ whose urge to serve goes beyond the call of duty. Many of MacFarquhar’s characters planned to become doctors or nurses, but then chose to do something greater. We follow a vegan on a mission to rescue chickens, a couple who end up adopting 20 children, the founder of a leper colony and a man who gives his kidney to a patient he has never met. After narrowly avoiding rape in her own home, one do-gooder runs after the intruders as they leave, asking, ‘Would you like a cup of coffee?’

A point of similarity between these eccentric figures is that they are undeterred by scale and distance. When considering human nature, Adam Smith had a dim view of the normal proportions of empathy. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (which is not quoted by MacFarquhar but is everywhere present) he explains, half jokingly, that suffering which occurs close by, both logistically and emotionally, consumes us. If a man were due

to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred million of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him than this paltry misfortune of his own.

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