• Ryanne Harper

Strangers Drowning


A couple of months ago, a friend and I went to see David Sedaris. He read his own work and plugged his new book, of course, but he also recommended another book, Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar. I haven't finished it yet because I'm having trouble with it. Strangers Drowning is a non-fiction about extreme do-gooders. Like, so extreme they give all of their money to charities or refuse to eat until starvation and hunger are no longer an issue. So they themselves starve to death. I'm not sure how that's supposed to help anyone.

As I'm reading Strangers Drowning in my comfy home sipping on a La Croix I don't need surrounded by far too many things, I start to feel guilty. Very guilty. I should do more to help. Maybe donating platelets as often as I can and giving to local classrooms in need isn't good enough? Because it probably isn't, I could definitely do more. The further I get, though, I start to feel relieved that I'm not as empathetic as the people MacFarquhar features. For instance, one woman becomes completely overwhelmed by guilt after spending $4 on a candied apple. How much malaria medication could $4 buy if sent to the right place? It's hard to enjoy anything when you mentally picture sick and dying people every time you make a purchase. It's exhausting. Even reading about it is exhausting, which is why it's taken me so long to read this book. I have to take breaks from it.

Throughout the book, MacFarquhar touches on the ethical question, if your mother is drowning, and two strangers are also drowning, whom should you save? I'm a terrible swimmer, so I wouldn't attempt either. But, if this scenario were on dry land, I would, without hesitation, save my mom. Sorry, strangers. The people in this book don't always offer up that same answer. For some, it's a numbers game. You should save the strangers because there are more of them; saving two lives is better than saving one. Others weigh the impact of the lives of the people involved before making the decision; if one of the strangers is a doctor who has saved hundreds and mom is a librarian, the stranger gets saved. Sorry, mom. A lot of thought goes into their answer. Whereas, for me, it's such an easy question to answer. So what does that say about me from an ethics perspective? Probably that I'm average. I assume most people would save their mom. So, yeah, this book is difficult. Dwight Garner from The New York Times sums it up when he says "Superb...If her book does not provoke and unsettle you, you may not have a pulse."


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