Lessons From Stories: The Plague

The Plague is a story written by Albert Camus and it details the spread of pestilence in the city of Oran and the response of the civilians. The story stands as a reminder of the inevitable, death, which can linger in all moments but it is also a reminder of the decency, goodness, and selfless actions human beings can take in the face of such inevitability. 

The Lessons

On Life – Be Prepared For The Worst Case Scenario

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

Rarely does anything happen in the world for the first time. Human history is rich and can be cited whenever a seemingly new event occurs. Yet, we are quick to forget the past, quick to forget what has happened and what has gone wrong in our timeline. The Plague concentrates on pestilence and on death in general as a reoccurring theme of life which is often pushed into some deep corner of the mind so that we don’t have to think about things that make us uncomfortable.

This uncomfortable reality was something the Stoics believed we should meditate on. One aspect of Stoic philosophy is that we should constantly think about what could go wrong in order to lessen its effect on us.

What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. The fact that it was unforeseen has never failed to intensify a person’s grief. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events. (Seneca)

The bad will always exist. That is part of life and that is part of nature. It’s better to confront this reality so we can be prepared instead of shying away from it which in turn amplifies the damage done.

How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free as long as there are pestilences.

On Mindset – Hardships Are Opportunity For Growth

“However, you think, like Panelous, that the plague has its good side; it opens men’s eyes and forces them to take thought?”

The doctor tossed his head impatiently.

“So does every ill that flesh is heir to. What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.”

A mindset that seeks growth and possibilities rather than a mindset that wallows in sadness, blaming the circumstances or other people. The latter leads nowhere but to further despair, while the former can help the person come out of hardship as a more capable individual.

On Character – Do Your Duty

“There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is—common decency.”

“What do you mean by ‘common decency’?” Rambert’s tone was grave.

“I don’t know what it means for other people. But in my case I know that it consists in doing my job.”

To do your part in a crisis means to show common decency towards your fellow human beings. Common decency for the doctor means to do his job the best he can. Common decency for other civilians would be to abide by the health guidelines. It may also be to show sympathy and care, two elements that can easily be forgotten during a crisis because our own ego takes over and we come to think about ourselves first.

On Life – Attaining Peace

Torrou was swinging his leg, tapping the terrace lightly with his heel, as he concluded. After a short silence the doctor raised himself a little in his chair and asked if Tarrou had an idea of the path to follow for attaining peace.

“Yes,” he replied. “The path of sympathy.”

Commonly sympathy is used for other people. We sympathize with our loved ones or our neighbors or maybe even strangers when we see them going through hardship. But we rarely sympathize with ourselves. When we make mistakes we respond to ourselves with harshness and judgment rather than sympathy. But in order to attain peace, that sympathy we show others must also be used on ourselves because we are flawed beings, imperfect, so the occasional mistakes are bound to happen.

On Character – Self Reflect and Think For Oneself

The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clearsightedness.

One way to fight against ignorance is to apply the Socratic method as demonstrated by Alain de Botton in his book The Consolations of Philosophy.

The Socratic method of thinking can help you examine the commonly held beliefs, not just of your own but those of the society you’re living in:

  1. Locate a statement confidently described as common sense.
  2. Imagine for a moment that statement is false. Search for situations or contexts where that statement would not be true.
  3. If a situation is found, the definition must be false or imprecise.
  4. The initial statement must be nuanced to take the exception into account.
  5. Repeat the process if new statement also has an exception.

A Reminder About The Nature Of Life

“Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.”

Rieux’s face darkened.

“Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.”

“No reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.”

“Yes. A never ending defeat.”

Tarrou stared at the doctor for a moment, then turned and tramped heavily toward the door. Rieux followed him and was almost at his side when Tarrou, who was staring at the floor, suddenly said:

“Who taught you all this, doctor?”

The reply came promptly:

“Suffering.”

Nothing lasts. Struggle is part of life. Defeat, which is death, is inevitable. There is suffering. Yet, we have a choice in how we act and respond to all of this. The character of doctor Rieux demonstrates this. Faced with this knowledge, he goes about his life still trying to help his fellow human beings.

Great Lines or Quotes

“Thus the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile. […] that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.”

 

Thus, too, they came to know the incorrigible sorrow of all prisoners and exiles, which is to live in company with a memory that serves no purpose. Even the past, of which they thought incessantly, had a savor only of regret.”

 

“The habit of despair is worse than despair itself.”

 

That a man suffering from a dangerous ailment or grave anxiety is allergic to other ailments and anxieties.

 

And to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.

 

 

Lessons From Stories: Unconditional Love Can Be A Bad Thing

Honore de Balzac wrote the novel Old Goriot in 1835, and he explored the social and cultural changes that were taking place in France at the time. There are several themes associated with this novel, but I’d like to focus on one in particular. The theme of parental love and family relationships, specifically the relationship between Goriot and his two daughters, Delphine and Anastasie. The lesson derived from this relationship is that there is such a thing as too much love. That, in fact, a parent’s unconditional love can have negative effects on their children.

(Obvious spoilers ahead)

To set the stage, at this time in France, one’s reputation was everything. This theme is largely explored through the lens of the character Rastignac. He is a young man with dreams of becoming rich and successful. In his story, he interacts with the elites of the Parisian society including both Delphine and Anastasie. The two daughters are married to successful men but the daughters constantly struggle with finances as they attempt to buy rich gowns and wear expensive jewelry in order to keep their high societal image.

It is in this struggle to stay relevant we see how unconditional parental love can be damaging.

But first, we must understand who Goriot is. Goriot is portrayed as the ideal father. He embodies the parenting view that it is the parent’s responsibility to sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of their children. We meet Goriot living in an old boarding house along with several other characters. Soon after that, we are given background information about how once upon a time Goriot was a rich merchant and the reason why he went from living comfortably to now having to spend his old age by himself in a small room was because he gave his wealth to his two daughters in order to maintain their image of wealthy Parisian women so they can keep getting invitations to dinner parties and get-togethers.

This idea of Keeping Up with the Joneses is as relevant today as it was in that time period. As people attain more wealth they upgrade their living situations trying to maintain a certain image that they believe is associated with their income level. Goriot’s two daughters are no different than the people we see walking around now. Both of them find themselves in this rich sphere of influence and both constantly struggle to stay in that sphere. When our self-worth and our identity comes to be tied with our reputation and image, we can fail to see what really matters. Such as the love and care of people around us.

The daughters fall into this trap as well. They care little of how their father has downgraded in his living conditions over the years and how he’s had to sell what is precious to him in order to raise enough money to keep a steady flow of income which the daughters can use for material possessions. The daughters are too self-absorbed and here is where too much love and care can be a bad thing.

The overwhelming love Goriot had for his daughters stopped him from thinking rationally. Instead of teaching his daughters about self-worth or raising them to make their own wealth, he kept on feeding their addiction. Love clouded his logic to the point he was essentially causing self-harm in order to keep his daughters happy. His love for his daughters stopped him from putting proper boundaries which would allow the daughters to take on responsibility for themselves. He wasn’t able to raise independent human beings. Instead, even as adults his daughters relied on him to help them and because his love was boundless, he kept on loving and sacrificing until his final breath. Worse of all, the tragedy of the story, the father dies without either one of his daughters there to comfort him and even at his funeral, the daughters don’t come.

Often we hear how moderation in all things is the key to a successful life. When I think of moderation my mind automatically goes to bad habits and vices that we can practice and how we must be aware of such things in order to keep ourselves from overindulging in the bad. Old Goriot opened my eyes to a new perspective. Overindulgence in the good can also be harmful. Too much love, comfort, and support can rob someone’s possibility of being their own individual. The daughters never had to stand on their own two feet because Goriot was there to support and guide them the whole time. It is easy to identify when we are imbalanced due to our bad actions but much harder to pinpoint the imbalance when we are acting out of love and care. This story is a good reminder of the latter. Even our love and care must be disciplined and moderated. Especially if we are to raise proper human beings.

Lessons From Stories: James Joyce’s Dubliners & The Necessity of Action

James Joyce was a novelist, short story writer, and poet. His short story collection, Dubliners, is comprised of fifteen stories all of which depict and explore the Irish middle class in the 20th century. A common theme that runs through these stories is of inaction. Where the characters wish to live a different, more fulfilling life but fail to take the necessary steps in order to achieve their dreams. This is exemplified in the stories “Two Gallants,” “A Little Cloud,” and “Eveline.” Joyce’s ability to capture realistic human behavior is one of the reasons why his writing has lived on. The failure leaves the characters frustrated and disappointed with life. A common occurrence in the everyday life of many people who wish they had acted differently in the past so their present could be more satisfying.

In the story, “Two Gallants,” we follow the characters, Corley and Lenehan. Both men are frustrated and disappointed with their lives. Corley wishes to be respected, to be a man of power. Lenehan tells us how Corley was “Fond of delivering the final judgment,” and how “His conversations were mainly about himself.” But Corley doesn’t have the abilities to earn this respect so he is left to trick and charm women into fulfilling his needs. This is shown at the end of the story where it is implied that he convinced the girl he was seeing into stealing money from the family she worked for.

Corley is almost an archetype of the kind of person we need to look out for in our lives. The selfish individual who uses his cunning to trick people. Someone with enough charm to manipulate the actions of others. He is also only focused on the short-term gain which will unlikely break the cycle of disappointment. Such action only brings temporary relief, something many of us can relate to with our own experiences.

Lenehan, on the other hand, has his own frustration which stems from how his life has turned out.

This vision made him feel keenly his own poverty of purse and spirit. He was tired of knocking about, of pulling the devil by the tail, of shifts and intrigues. He would be thirty-one in November. Would he never get a good job? Would he never have a home of his own? He thought how pleasant it would be to have a warm fire to sit by and a good dinner to sit down to.

These thoughts are easy to recognize and empathize with because most of us have had something similar to them. However, it’s not in the simple connection with these thoughts where the lesson is derived from but rather the actions of Lenehan prior to these thoughts and after which reveal the truth about human behavior. Before, he is simply walking around, wasting time, buying into the schemes of his friend. Directly afterward, Lenehan meets two friends and he spends time talking to them and telling them how the previous day he was with another friend, drinking and having a good time.

This action is also recognizable. The repetitive routine which kills your time as you get no closer to your dreams. Lenehan is unhappy with his life, he recognizes this fact but he doesn’t take any steps to improve it. Rather, he gives in to the feelings of self-pity and says that this “Experience had embittered his heart against the world.” Although he adds that there was hope left, it’s hard to imagine how long that will last if he doesn’t bring about change in his life. This goes for anyone who wishes to improve their lives. The longer you wait, the more concrete your foundation becomes and harder it is to break free.

The inability to undertake action is also seen in the story “A Little Cloud.” This story contrasts two figures, Little Chandler, who is the protagonist and Ignatius Gallaher. The story shows how the inactions of Little Chandler leave him envying the life of Gallaher. Gallaher is a poet and he travels the world, something Chandler wishes he could do. However, Chandler relies on two false narratives to ease his disappointment with life.

First, Chandler claims that if he had really wanted to, if he had truly dedicated his mind to the task, he could also write great poems. He believes that he could write “Different moods and impressions he wished to express in verse” however, he is too shy and timid to do so.

Secondly, he believes that he isn’t like Gallaher because he is married and has to take care of a wife and child. While Gallaher is still single and is able to travel to different cities and enjoy life.

If you wanted to succeed you have to go away.

With such thoughts he consuls himself and gives himself an excuse to why he isn’t a poet. When in reality, it’s the lack of ownership and action that has resulted in his unfulfilled life.

Such excuse-making is common in everyday life. It’s a coping mechanism in order to keep your self-esteem high. By having outlets to blame, we can then avoid the true reality of our failures. However, in this manner, we also forgo any hope of growth. This is also seen in Chandler’s story. He has just been dreaming and hoping for that magical one day where everything will work out for the best. Instead of taking action, he lives passively and so, his character doesn’t grow and his life doesn’t change. While, Gallaher took the risk, put his work out there to get criticized, figured his way out and now can live his desired life.

The lack of action is also present in the story “Eveline.” In this story, a young girl named Eveline has fallen in love with a sailor and wishes to leave with the boy. However, instead of her accepting this call to adventure, she refuses it.

A bell clanged upon her heart. She felt hims size her hand:

‘Come!’

All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would down her. She gripped with both hands at the iron railing.

‘Come!’

No! No! No! It was impossible.

Her refusal to accept this new life was due to the promise she had made her deceased mother. The promise is that she would look after the household.

She felt her cheek pale and cold and, out of a maze of distress, she prayed to god to direct her, to show her what was her duty.

It’s this duty she felt she owed that stops her from taking action. It’s the same kind of commitment many of us feel we owe other people that act as a barrier to experience our own life. It’s also our own insecurities and nerves which cling to some possible excuse to not be uncomfortable, to not go into some unknown path. But by doing so, we limit the possible experiences we can have. Just as Eveline cuts off this adventure with her love or how Little Chandler stays dreaming about being a poet while he works an office job or how Lenehan fails to make any progress in life. It’s the inability to make an uncomfortable choice that forces these characters to live lackluster lives. Lives which can be empathized with by many readers.

However, if we were to act opposite of these characters then perhaps we can get closer to achieving fulfillment ourselves. Lenehan dreams but has no plans to improve his situation. He repeats his bad habits which have lead him to dislike his situation. So, if we were to plan the course of our life for the next month or two months or however long, that will get us going down our desired path. Along with the recognition of bad habits which comes through self-reflection. Little Chandler, on the other hand, has excuses as to why he isn’t living his preferred life. These excuses deny ownership and responsibility. By taking on ownership we also take on the ability to have an effect on our life. We can overcome being timid and shy and take action in this manner. While, Eveline is afraid to experience life, to be uncomfortable and so, she falls back to pleasing other people rather than living her own life. Sometimes being selfish is good. To put yourself before others in order to live your own life. This can be difficult, especially when you have to disregard the opinions or wishes of your loved ones. However, opportunities don’t come around often and they certainly don’t wait around for you. If you wish to be fulfilled then that uncomfortable decision must be made.