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.

 

 

Reflections on Fear

Fear of failure. Fear of embarrassment. Fear of being vulnerable. Fear of success. Fear of responsibility. Fear of action. Fear of passivity. Fear of being let down. Fear of getting hurt. Fear of emotional pain. Fear of physical pain. Fear of being yourself. Fear of reputation. Fear of expectations.

Fear of … fear of … fear of …

Fear has many faces and everyone is afraid of something. Some fears are rational, others are irrational, many are debilitating, some are paralyzing and yet, all can be conquered, if you wish it so.

Fears are often based upon action. When we wish for a certain outcome to take place and so, we start to make plans of how we can turn that wish into reality but then, our minds automatically begin to think of scenarios where our actions will lead to a different event, a painful, embarrassing event, where failure can occur and hence, fear builds upon successive thoughts and we find ourselves at the mercy of fear. Unwilling to act because we are afraid of a possibility that may occur.

Should I still act? Or should I do something else?

She’s going to say no, so let’s do something else. Don’t bother, you won’t get the promotion, let’s go a different way. You’ll never be able to do that, it’ll be a waste of time.

In order to deal with such fears we often lower our gaze, set our sights to something smaller, something manageable which we can achieve with little risk and so, we settle due to fear.

Pain is another cause of fear. Most people don’t like to get hurt. They rather avoid pain, whether it is physical or psychological. We rather be comfortable and repeat pleasurable actions which have a small chance of hurting us. This is why when we think of taking action that will cause us to be uncomfortable and go beyond our perceived limitations, fear begins to kick in.

A marathon would be good to run but think of the last time you tried to run and the pain it caused your feet. To create a piece of art would be fulfilling but think about the pain of rejection. It’d be good to join a group but think about the awkwardness that could take place.

Once more, we bow to fear and do not attempt something great, something meaningful and we mistake our timid actions for actions but in reality, you are still living passively, not living life as it is meant to be lived for you allow fear to manipulate your wants and needs.

What to do then? What to do when you are afraid?

The answer is simple.

Act anyway.

Fear is imprisoning. If you allow it to dictate your life, your emotions, your actions then you will never be free. You will remain a mass of unfulfilled potential, inexperienced being, alive and yet not living.

We have to understand what Frank Herbert understood about fear. In his classic novel, Dune, Frank Herbert uses the analogy of death when he speaks of fear. When you allow fear to manage your actions, you have just experienced a little death and as time goes on and you make more decisions due to fear, you experience more little deaths and eventually, obliteration.

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Fear lives in the future. Where something could happen. Or it may not. What you fear may come true or it could not. Perhaps if you still act in the face of fear, you’ll realize that even in failure, your perceived trauma greatly outweighed the real consequences. Understand that pain is temporary, that the discomfort will go away but the accomplishment of acting even though you were afraid will stick around, you will look back and think of what you achieved rather than the pain you felt.

That painful moment, that fearful moment becomes a fond memory. It can turn into a catalyst of the simple and powerful thought “what else can I do?”.

An additional thought begins to occur “What else am I afraid of?”.

When you act regardless of fear you begin to make changes in your habits, in the way you think, in your character. You stop your life from being led by something else and you begin to lead your own life.

Through fear you get freedom, otherwise, it’s obliteration.