Helping Others Out On The Edges

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An extreme commitment to others. Larissa MacFarquhar joins us with stories of those who sacrifice almost everything to do good.

A portion of the cover of Larissa MacFarquhar's new book, "Strangers Drowning." (Penguin Press / Courtesy The Publishers)
A portion of the cover of Larissa MacFarquhar's new book, "Strangers Drowning." (Penguin Press / Courtesy The Publishers)

Larissa MacFarquhar doesn’t like the term “do-gooder,” but it’s the best she’s got for a certain type of person. Not your ordinary, well-intentioned civic-minded person who pitches in to help when needed. But those rarer people who wholly – maybe obsessively - devote themselves to a moral cause, at the expense of almost every other aspect of their lives. Think Gandhi or Mother Teresa, but not sainted. Not famous. They challenge us, they amaze us. They make us uneasy, even upset. What drives them, and our response? This hour On Point, Larissa MacFarquhar on do-gooders.
-- Tom Ashbrook


Larissa MacFarquhar, staff writer at the New Yorker and author of the new book, "Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help." (@larissamacfarqu)

From Tom’s Reading List

New Yorker: The Children of Strangers — "Terrible, painful things happened that they were not able to prevent—three children dead, two in prison, teen-age pregnancies, divorces. But there were also birthday parties and weddings and graduations; there were grandchildren and great-grandchildren, most of them still living in the same neighborhood, within a few blocks of one another and their parents, in and out of one another’s homes all the time, minding one another’s children. And every Easter and Fourth of July and Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s the children and the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren gathered with Sue and Hector in the big house they still lived in, although they couldn’t afford it, and ate a meal together."

New York Times: Samaritans and Other Troublemakers -- "Larissa MacFarquhar's superb book is about extreme do-gooders, people whose self-sacrifice and ethical commitment are far outside what we think of as the normal range. These humans make the rest of us uneasy. Their sacrifices throw harsh light upon our own flabby moral existences. As a society, we tend to dismiss them. They’re masochists or religious crackpots or sandal-wearing quinoa-heads or moral grandstanders or all of the above, right?"

Globe and Mail: Beg To Differ — "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."

Read An Excerpt Of "Strangers Drowning" By Larissa MacFarqhuar

This program aired on October 12, 2015.


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