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.

 

 

How Our Mindset Is Corrupted By The Demon

We want him to be in maximum uncertainty, so that his mind will be filled with contradictory pictures of the future, every one of which arouses hope or fear. There is nothing like suspense and anxiety for barricading a human’s mind against the Enemy.

This is the advice the demon Screwtape gives his nephew, Wormwood in the book called The Screwtape Letters by C.S.Lewis. Wormwood is a “demon in training” and his uncle’s advice is simple, when it comes to corrupting a man, one of the things you can do is make them either focus on the past or concentrate on the future. When you take an individuals mind off the present, that’s when things like uncertainty, suspense and anxiety begin to creep in.

We are anxious about how our future plans will turn out. Fearful that we will fail or face some kind of humiliation. We are uncertain if the mistakes of yesterday can be overcome tomorrow or if tomorrow will play out like we hope.

The mindset that doesn’t live in the Now is what the demon wants. When Screwtape mentions the “Enemy” he speaks of the good angels who are attempting to guide the individual towards the right path. Screwtape says that through suspense and anxiety, the good angels can be barricaded against. Meaning that when you aren’t living in the present, you aren’t following the righteous path.

He (“the enemy”) wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.

It’s in the negative “what if’s” where Screwtape would like our mindset to be. In this manner, when we continually imagine what could happen, what could go wrong, how we could be disappointed, how our actions could lead to pain, thats how we become stagnant, unengaging with life and with it, fail to grow as individuals.

Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy’s will. What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him–the present anxiety and suspense. It is about this that he is to say “Thy will be done,” and for the daily task of bearing this that the daily bread will be provided. It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross, but only of the things he is afraid of.

What the correct mindset should be towards tribulations and hardships is clear in this passage. It’s what the “Enemy” wants, according to Screwtape, which is to be patient and bear with dignity and grace whatever hardships you are going through. To view these hardships as obstacles deliberately laid down on your path for you to overcome and grow.

The incorrect mindset is what Screwtape advocates which is that we should be afraid of the obstacles, of the hardships and perhaps even waste our time complaining about how unfair our life is.

One can, therefore, formulate the general rule: In all activities of mind which favor our cause, encourage the patient to be un-selfconscious and to concentrate on the object, but in all activities favorable to the Enemy bend his mind back on itself. Let an insult or a woman’s body so fix his attention outward that he does not reflect “I am now entering into the state called Anger–or the state called Lust.” Contrariwise let the reflection “My feelings are now growing more devout, or more charitable,” so fix his attention inward that he no longer looks beyond himself to see our Enemy or his neighbors.

The mindset Screwtape wants is one where the negative feelings, harmful emotions are either acted upon or allowed to reign freely without a reflection or thought. Such emotions and feelings are those of anger, lust, hate, revenge, pain, essentially anything that you might associate with negativity. You can even put it simply as: The negative mindset is that of the demon.

While the opposite, the feelings or emotions of benevolence, charity, happiness, kindness can be associated with a positive mind. However, these can easily be corrupted when you attached the ego to it. As Screwtape suggests “fix his attention inward” meaning that when we start to act positively in order to boost our own image, to show the world how charitable or kind we are, then it taints the positive actions and keeps you away from the good path.

When anyone speaks about Demons and Angels, it can instantly turn off some people. This is understandable, I’m not a religious person myself, however, there is still a lot we can learn if you are able to look past that aspect of the text, if you don’t get lost in the weeds.

Demons and Angels may not be real but the consequences of a negative mindset and positive mindset are well documented. By associating the negative with the Demon influence it kind of snaps you into attention. It makes this grey world we live in a bit more black and white, where the path or how we should think, behave, interact with one another is made clearer when you attribute certain thought patterns with the Demon and others with the good Angels.

In this manner, life can be simplified a little bit.


Youtube: Learned Living

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Poem: The Old Rebel

Article: Montaigne On How To Be A Well-Rounded Thinker

Short Story: The Bus

 

Reflections On The Need To Be Aggressive

Aggression has many negative connotations to it. When you think of aggression you might think of recklessness, unintelligent, lacking self-control … aggressive behavior can be seen as a character flaw. This can be true. I am not talking about simply aggressive behavior, however. I’m more interested in implementing an aggressive mindset.

This notion comes from Jocko Willink‘s book Discipline Equals Freedom (I have covered ideas by Jocko in a previous post). When I read the short two and a half page passage on aggression I began thinking about two things: being passive and being active. In writing, being an active writer is not only encouraged, but it is almost a rule, as far as there are any rules when it comes to writing. Active writing is one where the character is doing something instead of things happening to the character. The latter being passive writing. Jocko is essentially speaking about this when he talks about keeping an aggressive mindset at all time.

You don’t want to be helpless, not in control, waiting for things to happen to you. That manner of existence is riddled with uncertainty. It is hard to imagine how, living in such a way, one can ever reach his or her goals or dreams or be prepared enough to take on some opportunity that will push them up the right path.

Instead of a passive existence, one has to be active. Aggression is not bad if used correctly. Being aggressive comes with being prepared. At all times. Ready for what comes at you. Ready to go after what you want. With an aggressive mindset, you don’t wait for the last minute to do something. You don’t wait for some opportunity to pass you by before changing. You don’t wait for others to improve your life. Waiting does not belong in this mindset. You are instead, actively seeking improvement, betterment, organizing and disciplining yourself and what you can control so that you are always ready and acting.

Far too many times I’ve been passive. Waiting at the last moment to study and getting mediocre marks because of it. Waiting too long to start sharing my thoughts and writings. Waiting for the right moment. Too many times I have considered something unlikely to happen without making an attempt at it first. There must be some fear of rejection or disappointment behind this passive way of existence.

Having lived in that passive manner, I know it gets one very little out of life. Being active on the other hand, being aggressive at all times, striving to take what you want, comes with a will to win rather than just a hope of participation.

Aggression can be friendly if used right. Aggressive mindset can bring order and control in your life. Formulate plans. Implement plans. Go after what you want and take a risk or two. Deal with rejection if that is the outcome of your aggression. Improve yourself from that point so the rejection is less likely to come again and go after it once more. Always being in attack mode because all I know is the other side of the coin is not pretty. Rather be aggressive than passive.

Stoic Lesson: The Right Mindset For A Happy Life

There is a constant struggle between our wants and the disregard that life has for our wants. Constantly throughout life we are met with disappointments, humiliations, failed expectations, failed hopes and dreams and yet, somehow, through all of this, we are meant to still be happy.

How can that be?

For Seneca, such happiness could be achieved through self-contentment.

The wise man is content with himself […] We must be quite clear about the meaning of this sentence and just how much it claims to say. It applies to him so far as happiness in life is concerned: for this, all he needs is a rational and elevated spirit that treats fortune with disdain; for the actual business of living he needs a great number of things.

Seneca put forth the notion that our happiness depends on our attitude rather than our circumstances and that the wise man understands this. The attitude is that whatever we have, is enough. That we must find happiness within ourself. Seneca understood how little control we have in life. Much of life is random or uncertain, at any moment the absurdity of it can strike and shift our life to a new direction. If our happiness is rooted in our lifestyle and if that lifestyle is disrupted then so is our happiness.

Which is why the wise man has disdain for fortune for he knows how fickle it can be.

The wise man needs hands and eyes and a great number of things that are required for the purposes of day-to-day life; but he lacks nothing, for lacking something implies that it is a necessity and nothing, to the wise man, is a necessity.

This is a mindset that needs to be practiced. An attitude that needs to be nurtured where one is able to detach themselves from things that can be changed by fortune.

One of the ways this detachment can be practiced is by keeping a journal like Marcus Aurelius did. The Roman Emperor constantly reminded himself how easily fortune changes, how quickly death can come and how little control he had over his life. Through repetition, Marcus Aurelius was able to keep in mind the kind of attitude that was required to be happy.

Another way detachment could be practiced was how Seneca lived.

Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.

Not only do we come to practice what we fear such as a shift in our living conditions, but we also come to strengthen our attitude that even if a shift unexpectedly occurs, we can get through it, our attitude doesn’t have to change.

But the important point of these examples is that they are practices which we must do on a consistent basis to keep the right mindset. There is no magic trick to snap the mind in place once and then that’s it. Instead, the mind requires regular reminders, constant repetition, the same way we formulate habits is the same way we develop the right attitude towards life.

This can be a difficult process because of the daily grind. But nothing good comes easy anyways. Any change made without effort is unlikely to stick.

At the end of the day, you can be happy with nothing and you can be unhappy with everything. Both of these spectrums exist. Stable happiness won’t be found in things that are outside of your control.

As the Stoics say:

A man is unhappy, though he reigns the world over, if he does not consider himself supremely happy.