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.

 

 

Poem: Ten Years

Ten years ago I thought I understood it all, life and everything in it, the steps in front of me felt so real, concrete-like, a path which could sustain my weight but the very first step showed the cracked foundation upon which my hopes were built on, the child-like dreams up in smoke, trying to bottle them back up in order to give it another go, happy to do so for the youth was with me, the naivety of which keeps the blood flowing and the body warm from just the possibilities,

Ten years later the same hopes rummage through my head, gluing together the wreckage of my life in order to make sense of it all otherwise, I know I’ll senselessly go down under and finally have some relief but before I can earn that, I gotta do something worthy of it and so I gathered the broken, the cracked, the splintered, the fragmented pieces of myself and form a happy, smiling face, tape it all together and show that I was here, I existed,

Ten years from now I hope that I’m not hoping any longer, that all those hopes lead somewhere, that the darkness was elevated from the light of a beacon, that the beacon wasn’t false, that the falsity didn’t break me too bad, that I still had the strength to crawl in the darkness finding the bits and pieces, that I had the courage to put it all back together and that I can take another step still.

Poem: Tomorrow

Yesterday I said it’ll be different,

the sun rises the same,

the thoughts anew,

rising with yesterday’s promise,

but before the sun could reach its zenith,

the thoughts devolved,

devolving back into yesterday.

 

Yesterday I said it’ll be different,

thinking of tomorrow’s changes,

stepping the same,

walking the same,

running the same,

wishing for change, acting the same, grasping at pleasure,

tomorrow became yesterday.

 

Yesterday I said it’ll be different,

yesterdays mistakes are written down on paper,

never again, that’s the last time, I’m new now,

“Can’t you read the writing”,

the clock tic’s, the dog barks, the day passes,

and the paper is still there,

pen in hand, scratching away the word: yesterday,

just to write yesterday again.

 

Yesterday I said it’ll be different,

boundless energy is finally contained,

It’s thoughtless, mindless, blissful existence,

intrinsic feelings rise,

but a thought comes, singular, innocent, disguised well,

it knocks,

breaking the chains,

the energy is once more directionless,

shackles placed on bliss,

It tu becomes yesterday.

 

Yesterday I said it’ll be different,

leaving behind comfort,

seeking struggle, for it is the only thing that should be sought after,

but after just one dance,

the comfort calls,

missing me and I, it,

I owe it a dance too, I say,

I take her home, sleeping with her,

happy in the moment,

but at night, comfort leaves, the struggle calls,

having left her on the dance floor,

shame, yesterday I said it would be different.

 

Yesterday I said it’ll be different,

the shame-filled memories carry me forward,

but those feelings are like candle flames,

soon it’ll be extinguished for it can never burn forever,

no light then,

no guide then,

the path in darkness,

stumbling, crawling, crying,

babe seeking her mother,

I find the familiar path,

yesterday.

 

Yesterday I said it’ll be different,

tonight I say tomorrow.


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Poem: Electric Self-Help

Article: The Black Swan and Seeking Randomness

Short Story: Everything Work’s Itself Out

Poem: That’s Life

Destined to be great

(One thinks)

Suffering must have a purpose

(One hopes)

Future full of riches

(one dreams).

 

All to stay sane,

insanity knocks at the door,

letting in it would mean that you accept:

loneliness,

pointlessness,

meaninglessness,

(The truth).

 

Stay ignorant, friend,

so you can smile, but sooner or later the absurdity of life will strike you,

dragon fire,

see death and be cleansed,

reborn once you ask ‘why’,

babe,

naked, alone, terrified,

(It’s true),

but if you’re brave it can have endless possibilities,

(That’s life).

Poem: Your Hourglass Empties

Understand that the present is all you have, no

life in the past, gone

are those days, future

hope is always a second away,

pleasant to think about, but

you’ll never catch it.

 

no life outside the now,

no hell outside the now,

no heaven outside the now,

no bliss outside the now.

 

Wasting the present; wasting life

dreaming of different lives; living only one

that one goes quickly, as

keep dreaming, hoping, praying,

passivity isn’t rewarded, life

is meant for the active, for

only they can catch the fleeting present, while

the passive merely exist, watching the flickering stars at night.

 

Your hourglass empties,

you could only have one grain of sand left,

but you always act as if there are thousands, then

when life ends, we

may say it ended abruptly, but

each wasted day progressed towards the sudden cessation.

 

 

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Reflections On The Meaninglessness Of Life

We act as if the world cares about us. As if there is a future which is predictable and certain. If you follow the right steps that you may be happy at some point in your life. If you match the steps of people that have come before you, that you may find this life worthwhile. Our minds are meant to be chained to some meaning so we grasp at what is comfortable, what is easily attainable and believe that to be the truth. We seek stability for in a stable world we can make progress, we can make plans for the future, we can project ourselves 10 or 20 years from now and see the improvements we have made and thus, we can keep going, living the same rhythm of life that we have been living.

Such a belief is absurd. The world does not care about our needs.

It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm—this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement. “Beings”—this is important. Weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness. It awakens consciousness and provokes what follows. What follows is the gradual return into the chain or it is the definitive awakening. At the end of the awakening comes, in time, the consequence: suicide or recovery.

Such a feeling may strike someone “on a street corner or in a restaurant’s revolving door” as Albert Camus put it. The feeling of absurdity. The absurd is the divorce between what a man wants and what life can offer. What man wants is meaning. A “why”, a reason for his struggle, for the hardships he faces, for the pain he endures. What’s heaven if not a prize for handling the hardships of life with grace. A possible reward for being a good boy. The same way we treat children or our pets. Behave yourself and you may get a treat, but there is no guarantee.

The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.

There is freedom in this silence, in the meaninglessness of life. That freedom being that one is free to be who he or she wishes and do what they like. You are not destined to be someone. Your life has no fate. You can give your own life meaning without having to be chained to the coping mechanism of other people like God or the rat race to get to the top and buy the newest car and live in the most expensive house. You are not chained to such things because such things are just man-made concepts to keep the absurdity of life from overwhelming you. But the absurdity can be freeing if you embrace it and understand that your life can be completely your own if you figure out what matters to you, what you truly desire, what you want and through this, you can figure out what gives your suffering meaning and your life meaning.

Most people rather not go through the trouble of giving their own lives meaning. They rather just follow the prescribed formula imposed onto them by others and be fine going in circles, over and over. It’s hard to blame such people because life is difficult and it is hard and it ends rather quickly. Why torment yourself further by revolting to the world, confronting your beliefs, examining your limitations and constantly seeing the world anew. Such revolt may give your life value but it is also a struggle to live this way. It may be simple just to conform. Hence why there are much more conformist in the world than there are true individuals. I suppose spending your life trying to act as if life isn’t absurd is one way to cope with its absurdity.

Man is always prey to his truths.

The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays by Albert Camus.

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How To Have Optimal Experience In Life

In his book, Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes Optimal Experience in the following way:

It is what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind whips through her hair, when the boat lunges through the waves like a colt–sails, hull, wind, and sea humming a harmony that vibrates in the sailor’s veins. It is what a painter feels when the colors on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic tension with each other, and a new thing, a living form, takes shape in front of the astonished creator. Or it is the feeling a father has when his child for the first time responds to his smile. Such events do not occur only when the external conditions are favorable, however: People who have survived concentration camps or who have lived through near-fatal physical dangers often recall that in the midst of their ordeal they experienced extraordinary rich epiphanies in response to such simple events as hearing the song of a bird in the forest, completing a hard task, or sharing a crust of bread with a friend.

What can be concluded from such a statement is that the best moments, the most optimal moments in our lives are not passive ones. The times where you relax and do nothing can be pleasurable but rarely do we look back at such times with fondness and memory. Instead, the opposite is what we recall. The times where we sacrificed, worked hard, stretched ourselves physically and mentally to achieve a goal. These character-defining moments are what gives our lives richness and thus makes these experiences optimal.

Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.

“Make” is the keyword. It means we have to actively pursue tasks that are challenging, which make us uncomfortable and the accomplishment of such tasks would result in growth.

For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat this own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.

An important component to achieving optimal experiences is understanding what you care for and what doesn’t matter to you. You cannot rely on society to determine your rewards and punishments because you may simply not care for what other people find important. So, the pursuit of something that has little value in your life will not provide you with optimal experiences even though it may test you physically or mentally.

To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its reward and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances. This challenge is both easier and more difficult than it sounds: easier because the ability to do so is entirely within each person’s hands; difficult because it requires a discipline and perseverance that are relatively rare in any era, and perhaps especially in the present. And before all else, achieving control over experience requires a drastic change in attitude about what is important and what is not.

The main thing to understand about the optimal experience is that it may not be pleasant as you experience it. When you truly push your body physically to new heights, pain will be associated with that struggle. Or when you consistently put yourself in uncomfortable positions you really test your mind and force it to adapt but during that task, the feeling of being uncomfortable, of quitting, of the easier things you could be doing instead will be prevalent in your mind. That resistance is something you have to deal with.

Getting control of life is never easy, and sometimes it can be definitely painful. But in the long-run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery–or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life–that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably experience.

The aim then is to pursue enjoyment and not pleasure. Pleasure can be hedonistic and is often temporary where after the pleasurable act is over, that sensation or feeling fades. While enjoyment, which comes from optimal experiences, stays with you long after the act, it is this enjoyment we think back to, feel a sense of pride and are overcome with happy emotions when recalling what we have accomplished.

 

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