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He’s tried to live a moral life. How could he be the bad guy?

“Either he’s crazy, or we’re selfish.” A reader told me that The New Yorker last week profiled Zell Kravinsky, the Pennsylvania professor of Renaissance literature, real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist embroiled in controversy for donating a kidney to a total stranger… and considering donating his other one as well. I cannot find the New Yorker piece online, but this San Francisco Chronicle article from November is the best of the portraits I found online by googling Kravinsky’s name.

Kravinsky has aroused reactions running the gamut from near-beatification to revulsion. When he proposed to donate a kidney to a stranger, with the sole stipulation being that it be to someone poor and black (“No one should have two houses when people were homeless and no one should have two kidneys while others struggled to live without one”), the transplant surgeon had him examined by a psychiatrist “to ensure that he really wanted to do this”, having never encountered a living donor willing to give an organ to an unrelated individual. Kravinsky literally sneaked out of his house to go to the hospital for the procedure, and at the time of the article he and his wife, (also a psychiatrist) who was reportedly angered that his action would prevent one of his children from receiving his kidney if needed (which Kravinsky considers an implausible scenario and an outlandish objection), were estranged. No less a celebrity than Pat Boone, who makes a cause celebre of organ donation, is publicly exhorting Kravisky’s wife to reconcile with this ‘hero’. Others too consider him to be “turning his back on his …young family to fill a personal need” and one columnist called him a “selfish SOB”. Kravinsky appears to answer such objections with homilies (“They say charity begins in the home. I don’t know why it ends at home.”) and a humility that does appear abit labored. Reading about him, one finds oneself less desirous of being in his presence than, say, Albert Schweitzer, who when I was young was the archetypical object of endless consideration of whether someone could be truly altruistic without deriving an egoistic satisfaction from it (or, if it is unavoidable, whether such pride would be in the sinful category).

Kravisky says that, in deference to his family’s objections, he will probably not donate his remaining kidney, having once expressed a hope (again with that somewhat forced modesty) that his death would allow someone who might make an even greater contribution to live. He is looking into donating other organs while he continues to live, which left me with a Buddhist-flavored image of the piece-by-piece dismantling of the self and shedding of the extraneous, melded with the Christian ascetic conceit of the mortification of the flesh. According to the journalist, he seeks to give more and more as a means to a “perfectly moral life” in which he ‘loves everyone’ and is ‘totally good’ and ‘totally self-sacrificing’, which I hope is a caricature of something the writer does not really understand. I look forward to reading the New Yorker piece, which will hopefully have greater psychological depth. (I found myself wihsing I had been the psychiatrist asked to examine him to render an opinion as to his competency to consent to the kidney donation, and grateful I was not the psychiatrist called upon around his hypothetical consent for the second procedure…) Lord help Kravinsky if it is not a caricature; he has much work to do to find an avenue to true humility if so, but the practices of abnegation he is pursuing may be well-suited to getting him there. I wish him well… [thanks, adam]