Do-gooder’s dilemma

Jul 18, 2016 by

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He usually stands at the bottom of the stairs that reach the street from the elevated train. Sometimes he sings; sometimes his spirits are low.

Celeste Kennel-Shank


He’s cheerful if he had a chance to sleep in a bed the night before; a room is $20. And if I stop to buy him a cup of coffee — extra cream, extra sugar — and a pastry, the reward is his broad smile.

Giving directly to people on the street is not something I have always done. An organization I once worked for doing outreach to people who are homeless argued that its staff could make the best use of even spare change donated to them.

But I’ve been trying recently to be less questioning in my giving. Sometimes telling myself that someone else needs the money more requires closing my heart to the person in front of me.

An even more intense weighing of ethical demands and responding to human need — nearby and in those one will never meet — goes on in the lives of the people Larissa MacFarquhar details in Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices and the Overpowering Urge to Help. The stories of so-called do-gooders, people who give an extraordinary amount in order to put their principles into practice, will likely resonate with most Mennonites.

Reading it served as a recap of many of the big questions that have haunted me for as long as I can remember. The book asks how one should weigh commitment to family and one’s own well-being with duty to strangers.

One woman gave away nearly all of her time and money, researching which organizations could help the most people with the least money. She agonizes over wanting a candy apple at an orchard when the money could purchase a malaria-preventing bed net or deworming medicine for a child.

To her, every purchase had become a real-life version of the hypothetical dilemma the title refers to — of having to choose whether to save one’s drowning mother in one place or two drowning strangers in another.

I was even more engrossed by this question: “If do-gooders are always thinking of how the world is unjust and needs to be changed — if they want to replace our world with another, better one — then do they love the world that we know, which is the world as it is?”

Perhaps those of us with do-gooder tendencies can strive not only to reduce suffering but also to create opportunities to enjoy the parts of life that are sweet, that make it worth living, even simple pleasures like coffee and pastries. We don’t always need to deny ourselves what could be considered a luxury. Instead, we can make it possible for others to have a moment of respite from what is hard in life.

Jesus helps the expert in the law to see that the person who shows mercy is a true neighbor to a person in need. Loving our neighbors involves acting to alleviate suffering, but that doesn’t always mean ignoring the needs close at hand — whether in our families or others around us — in order to help elsewhere.

And it doesn’t have to mean giving away that all we have — in time, energy, and spare income — and saving nothing for ourselves. Even the most devoted do-gooder has limitations. We need mercy for ourselves, too.

Perhaps by sharing of ourselves and our resources with a sense of abundance and appreciation for simple pleasures — instead of constantly calculating effectiveness — we can also do the most good.

Celeste Kennel-Shank, a former MWR assistant editor, is an editor and community gardener in Chicago.

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