Friday, August 21, 2020

Why We Need to be Eternally Vigilant


My Old Copy

Why We Need to be Eternally Vigilant

As we slog through the Covid-19 pandemic, Albert Camus’s The Plague is back in the news, a novel about an epidemic spreading across the French Algerian city of Oran.

 I have a hard-cover, Modern Library edition, list price $2.95, given to me by my girlfriend when I was in my twenties. At the time, being rash and impetuous, I found the book boring. Now, 50 years later, I have reread it.

As a 74-year-old man, my sentiments lie with what Stephen Spender wrote in a New York Times Book Review in 1948, when the book was first published. He would say I had completely missed the point if I expected a flashy, spellbinding novel.

According to Spender, The Plague is, first and foremost, a parable and a sermon,of such importance for our time that to dismiss it in the name of artistic criticism would be to blaspheme against the human spirit.”⁠1  It’s a message we desperately need to hear today!

At the beginning of Camus’s novel, the people of Oran ignored or minimized the plague, as some of us today are doing with Covid.  But the bubonic plague was so deadly and the suffering so hideous, folks soon meekly fell into line, following procedures familiar to us today: sheltering in place, wearing marks, quarantining those exposed.

The populace also complied because the reality of the plague was visceral, oozing corpses dead in the street, as opposed to empty words on mass media. The novel’s narrator ponders the nature of the thirty or so big plagues in history that have undoubtedly caused at least one hundred million deaths.

 “But what is a hundred million dead? When you go to war, you hardly know what a dead man is. And since a dead man has weight only if he has been seen dead, a hundred million corpses sown throughout history are only a smoke in the imagination.⁠2

One of my patients who voted for Trump "to shake things up," represented this attitude. He believed that Covid-19 was a total hoax until his neighbor died from it. Camus understood, Our fellow citizens in this regard were like everyone else… they did not believe in the plagues. The scourge is not on a human scale, so we tell ourselves that the scourge is unreal, it's a bad dream that will pass. But it does not always pass.⁠3

In fact, it will never pass because Camus's plague is a metaphor of many layers.

Camus tells us not to fool ourselves: the plague is always with us, forever lurking, whether it is pestilence, war, or humankind’s thoughtless predisposition to inflict pain on each other– now accelerated by viruses spread on social media.

“Each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him. What is natural is the microbe. All the rest – health, integrity, purity(if you like)– is a product of the human will of a vigilance that man must never falter.⁠4

And what does this vigilance require? “Take the present seriously and live into it as deeply as you can⁠5,” as Episcopal priest, Nancy Taylor declared in a recent sermon. 

The selfless Doctor Rieux, the narrator in Camus's novel – a saint, in my eyes, although he is not a religious man – is an embodiment of this perennial wisdom: getting up each morning, caring for all his patients, with no ego or expectations other than the necessity of doing his best. That’s what transcendence is to Camus: Going beyond yourself to do what needs to be done: Taking action, putting your feet on the ground.

Doing what needs to be done was Obama’s message in his speech at the Democratic National Convention: “I am also asking you to believe in your own ability — to embrace your own responsibility as citizens — to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure.⁠6

That’s my central takeaway from rereading The Plague: Everything we have that is good and truly humanis a product of the human will of a vigilance that man must never falter.⁠7




2 Camus, Albert. The plague (p. 19). Kindle Edition.

3 Camus, Albert. The plague (pp. 18-19). Kindle Edition.

4 The Plague by Camus: Modern Library Edition ©1948 by Stuart Gilbert . p 229



7 The Plague by Camus: Modern Library Edition ©1948 by Stuart Gilbert . p 219

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Snake in the garden of one's dreams

 During the drought, the last remaining water hole behind my house

"What one does not remember," 
James Baldwin reminds us, 
"is the serpent in the garden 
of  one's dreams."

Sunday, August 9, 2020

If hope is dead, how do we move forward?

 Cannon Beach, OR
CC Jean Stimmell

I have much in common with Eric Utne: We are both baby boomers with a similar take on life. I was a long-term subscriber to his Utne Reader: A ground-breaking magazine, sometimes described as a Readers Digest for the alternative press; it highlighted a whole range of publications from The Whole Earth Catalog to the East West Journal and writers from Robert Bly to Buckminster Fuller. Not surprisingly, I was excited about reading his new memoir, Far Out  Man.

I had another pressing reason to read his book: From what I’d read about Eric, he was an eternal optimist, much like me, but the promo for his new book alleged he had lost hope.  I was eager to see what he had to say because I, too, have lost hope. But, in my case, it hasn’t disappeared, just transformed into something I feel is more meaningful in today’s world.

As I found out when I read his book, we are still on the same wavelength: although he articulates his vision more eloquently:

Do I have hope now? If hope means the expectation that someone (a new president), or something (geo-engineering or some other techno-fix), is going to save us—then no, I’m hopeless, or rather “hope-free.” I like Vaclav Havel’s take on hope: Hope is not a prognostication—it’s an orientation of the spirit….It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.⁠1 

His revelation came only after he could fully acknowledge how dire our plight has become, that we are irrevocably heading down a  path to near-term human extinction.  By squarely looking death in the face, life immediately became more precious, hitting him in the gut with how wondrous but fleeting it really is: You savor the moments you have and treat others, and yourself, with more loving kindness.”⁠2 

Joan Sutherland describes a similar realization of what life is ultimately about, writing about Zen koans created during a decade of civil war, famine, and plague in 8th century China, a catastrophe so extreme that two out of three of the inhabitants died.

She writes in particular about two Zen teachers, Mazu (Ma) Daoyi and Shitou Xiqian, instrumental in this effort. They both explored what it means for us to be wholeheartedly part of this world: How do we fall willingly into the frightened, blasted, beautiful, tender world, just as it is?⁠3

Ma’s advice to the people was to “benefit what cannot be benefited, do what cannot be done.” When they took his advice, his words became a kind of encouragement: Just because something is impossible, don’t let that stop you. “Put down your despair and your hope, begin from no position at all, and look for what becomes possible when you do.”

The author keeps that quote from Ma over her desk next to this one by  Eleanor Roosevelt: ‘Most of the work in the world is done by people who aren’t feeling very well that day.’ The Roosevelt quote refers to how she was able to cope with desperate personal unhappiness by dedicating her life to the service of others.

These responses resonate with that of the prominent author and teacher Steven Batchelor: He a very spiritual individual and a devoted Buddhist, but does not believe in God.

He writes that to confront the unprecedented crises we face today, we must find  “imaginative responses that may not have occurred to any one before.”⁠4

Batchelor says, a traditional Buddhist meditation of death requires that you contemplate the certainty of your own death and the uncertainty of its time, and then dwell on how you should live now. He then expands this meditation to our whole species:

Just as death focuses attention on what matters most for you as an individual, extinction focuses attention on what matters most for us as a species. In embracing extinction, we become intensely conscious that we are complex thinking, feeling, sensing, caring creatures who emerged from millions of years of evolution by natural selection.” Contemplating extinction in this way “can open up an astonished, quasi-religious wonder at the grandeur of being alive at all.”⁠5

Batchelor suggests Covid-19 could have a transformative dimension: By exposing us to the threat of death while granting us free time to contemplate our purpose in life, this crisis  “may inspire a heartfelt commitment to a more collaborative, caring, and sane way of living together on this Earth. We may have entered the chrysalis of confinement as caterpillars, but might we emerge with wings?”

Summarizing the various voices, I have written about: It is clear that we must take responsible action and not succumb to our primitive emotions, which only result in further division and paralysis we can’t afford in the face of our dire existential dilemmas. The answer lies in activating our imagination by bearing witness to the higher truth that we are never powerless: We can always make a positive contribution to our fellow beings – and they to us – whatever the future may throw at us.


1 Utne, Eric. Far Out Man (p. 315). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition

2 Utne P315



5 Ibid