Opinion: Old paradox of plague, humanity resonates today

“The Plague” author Albert Camus/Library of Congress
“The Plague” author Albert Camus/Library of Congress

During this fearful pandemic, I sought out wisdom from a favorite author from my graduate school days in English literature at Drew University. Albert Camus was a French Algerian philosopher, author, journalist who helped, along with Jean Paul Sartre, define the philosophy of the absurd. He plunged into the paradoxes of life, asking ultimate questions, but with no probability of finding any adequate answers. Pessimistic? Yes, to be sure, but with a fierceness of resolve to meet the absurdity of human existence by living in the here and now, fully appreciating the fullness of life, but only by not avoiding death. That paradox defines the subject of Camus’ novel, The Plague, and to a great extent, our lives today.

Happy to find my original copy on a bookshelf, I have been amazed at the re-reading of it. It was published in 1948 as an allegory of the horrors of World War II, but using nonviolent resistance. I was surprised to see that the metaphor of the plague that descends on this Algerian town has a hundred parallels to our present pandemic.

Dr. Rieux, the doctor narrator, fights against the plague with all his medical skills, losing his best friends, and his wife, as he continually reaches out to save others. The arguments that represent the different beliefs of the townspeople about research, vaccines, quarantines, and religion could be superimposed on our current debates and look exactly the same. The voices represent those we see today: disbelief that it is anything serious, the political advantage to be gained by one position or another, the divisions of state against state, of business and economics against the common good, and the value of science against rigidly held religious beliefs. Those divisions are present with us today as well. Fighting the plague must confront all these different opinions of the people, but Dr. Rieux in the novel decides, “One can’t cure and know at the same time, so cure as quickly as we can. That’s the more urgent job.”

Alleviating suffering and death then become the never-ending task of Dr. Rieux and his colleagues in The Plague. It is also the work that has to be done to fight the pandemic in our country today by medical personnel, EMT heroes, doctors and nurses, military, congressional leaders, journalists, and countless unnamed citizens who bear the front lines of danger and service to plague-afflicted neighbors and strangers.

The plague then becomes a metaphor of life, as we all must go through some tragedy and suffering — no one escapes. Camus’ commitment is to the absurdity of life that requires this paradox of peace and suffering. One’s highest calling, then, is to bring forth greater universal good through this connection with suffering. In Christianity, Jesus’ suffering and death is necessary to bring about salvation and eternal life. However, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and ancient native religions everywhere also incorporate some requirement of suffering through sacrifice, pandemics, plagues, or tragic deaths, as the vehicle to bind us stronger together in commitment and service to others.

In the novel, Dr. Rieux resolves not to be silent and just let death happen, but to bear witness to the suffering of the people in a time of pestilence. He sees that plague, or pandemic must be fought, and paradoxically, the fight itself can call forth a greater humanity. The doctor-narrator in The Plague concludes: “The tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints, but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.”

How can we become healers? The answer is also a paradox. Distance is how we all can become heroes. We will do our best to support the medical heroes, the government leaders, and humanitarian works in many directions. The fact is, however, most of us must fight by staying home, isolating, respecting distance, and wearing mask and glove protection.

Distance can bring us closer in mind and heart and spirit. A pandemic brings us closer to awareness of the death of our loved ones and our own. Isolation brings us to the surrounding power of nature. The COVID-19 virus can settle life’s scores and teach us peace. Sheltering can take us back in time to our most-precious memories. Distance can become a resolution for what cannot be made right.

As Dr. Rieux believed and lived out, the coronavirus also can be the power to unite the human race to face the paradox of life and death by striving our utmost to be healers.

Mary James Dean holds a Doctorate of Ministry, and is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Carrollton.

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