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The Absurdity Of A Pandemic


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“But what does it mean, the plague? It’s life, that’s all.”
Albert Camus, The Plague

Albert Camus wrote a great book called, The Plague. He narrates a story about a plague that hits the city of Oran, but mostly he describes the reactions of its citizens and, subtly, he portrays his philosophical standings on such an event, which can be summarized with this quote from the book: 

“I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.”
Albert Camus

The absurd 

You see, Camus was an atheist. He did not believe in redemption or in god coming to save us. He coined the idea of the absurd. Again, I’ll quote him. 

The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” “A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future.” “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” — Albert Camus

As if there were no answers from the world, as if there was no meaning. He did not believe that meaning was found in the bible or any other book. He believe that meaning could not be found anywhere, and this notion of the reality of things is what he called the absurd. Like yelling why to the sky, when you know no answer is coming. 

So if meaning couldn’t be found anywhere, we have to create it for ourselves. 

The Plague

The plague begins to infect the entire population in Oran. The measures taken by the government are exactly the same as the ones taken by our governments right now. Quarantine, sending everyone home and so on. The city of Oran is the only one hit by the plague and therefore quarantined. Everyone is forbidden to see their families from outside the city and vice versa. In the beginning stages of the plague, they laugh a lot, cracking jokes about everything seems to be the way we humans cope with anything, doesn’t it? It reminds me of all the memes circulating around on Instagram (I have to admit, some of them are really funny). The story describes every, or better said, most situations humans find themselves in when going through isolation, chaotic healthcare system and living under the fear of death. 

Could you imagine you’d be living something like this? Fearful of the possibility of yourself dying or your parents dying. This is not a light thought. 

The citizens of Oran, while being quarantined and under the fear of the disease, begin to realize the prisons they were living in. The prisons of habit and taking things for granted. Not realizing that things do end, maybe sooner than later. But what to do about this? What to do about the absurdity of our situation? And for this:

“Well, personally, I’ve seen enough of people who die for an idea. I don’t believe in heroism; I know it’s easy and I’ve learned that it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves.”

― Albert Camus, The Plague

Meaning 

For Camus, meaning is created by ourselves. 

In Oran, some citizens were crushed by the fear of death and the absurd situation they found themselves in, crushed by the realization of their meaningless prisons, build entirely by themselves in the form of habit and negation of life, like sleepwalkers. Crushed by fear and a meaningless universe. 

But there were others that decided that they might as well go out to help, risking the possibility of getting sick themselves. But that didn’t matter, for they were no prisoners anymore, no more the prisoners of the crushing effects of fear and the meaningless habits they had fallen into. It was the plague that liberated them. They decided to act on what they found important, like being strong and fearless against the possibility of death, and in doing so, they gave meaning to their existence. 

I find it absurd to find myself in a situation like the one we are currently living, but we are. Life changed in a couple of months, and it seems to be changing now in matter of days. The presidency of Trump, my president Andres Manuel, and all the others, find themselves in their Churchill moments. 

Which makes me wonder about my tiny prison. It makes me wonder about my petty goals and it makes me wonder about the things that I find important in life. 

One thing I do know is that I don’t want to find myself in the ranks of the crushed by the absurd and fear. I’m not saying that I’m going to go out and try to help in a hospital, I don’t think I could help, in the medical sense. 

But I can help in other ways, and that is by making the decision to act in the things that I find meaningful, with courage and fearlessness. Like sharing this with you, and maybe lighting up a tiny spark that will make you think, and act on what you find meaningful. 

“And he knew, also, what the old man was thinking as his tears flowed, and he, Rieux, thought it too: that a loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart.”
Albert Camus, The Plague

This whole thing is an exercise of Memento Mori. We all are going to die, maybe sooner than later. But don’t let yourself be crushed by the fear of death, be elevated by it. Death reminds us that this one, dear life, as we know it as human beings, it’s as weird and impossible to happen as can get. 

 Think about that and act accordingly. 

I’m happy to be sharing this world with you. 

Oh, and I want to add as well, another quote from Camus, that’s just right for the moment. 

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.

And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger — something better, pushing right back.”
Albert Camus

Thanks for reading, 

Ricardo Guaderrama 

Special thanks to my Patreons:
Edward Hackett
Michael Thelen
Melville Alexander

Subscribe and receive the Askesis ebook to further develop your practice of stoicism. 
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Lessons In Stoicism From COVID-19


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So use all that is called Fortune. Most men gamble with her, and gain all, and lose all, as her wheel rolls. But do thou leave as unlawful these winnings, and deal with Cause and Effect, the chancellors of God. In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance, and shalt sit hereafter out of fear from her rotations. A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

The most important lesson you can learn from Coronavirus is to realize where are you placing your trust. What do you rely on? On the government solving everything? On your money? On your good looks? On your supposed “fortune”? Or maybe on things just getting better? None of this will bring you peace. 

If you’re looking for peace and effectiveness in your life, so you can live it as best as it can be lived. You need to rely on yourself

What do I mean by this?

“Ne te quaesiveris extra.” (Do not seek for things outside of yourself)”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

I began this post with the last paragraph from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s self-reliance (A must-read recommended by Stoic Answers) because of the succinct, short, and just plainly perfect answer he gives for the best way you can live your life. 

His language can be a bit complicated so I’ll try to explain it as best as I can. 

Fortune

He begins talking about fortune. How man gambles with her and how they may win all or lose all as her wheel rolls. Fortune has no favorites. Tom Hanks has the Coronavirus just like so many other poor people from Wuhan China. Do not believe that you are exempt from misery or from glory. 

Do not trust in fortune. Fortune will do whatever it pleases and it is completely and irremediably outside of your control. 

So First. Again, do not trust fortune, do not rely on her, rely on yourself.

For good fortune, act in this way: 

“Remember that you ought to behave in life as you would at a banquet. As something is being passed around it comes to you; stretch out your hand, take a portion of it politely. It passes on; do not detain it. Or it has not come to you yet; do not project your desire to meet it, but wait until it comes in front of you. So act toward children, so toward a wife, so toward office, so toward wealth.” — Marcus Aurelius

Self-ownership first and foremost always. You’ll enjoy the delights of life infinitely more if you do not become possessed by them.

For bad fortune, act in this way: 

“What would have become of Hercules do you think if there had been no lion, hydra, stag or boar — and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges?

Obviously he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules.

And even if he had, what good would it have done him? What would have been the use of those arms, that physique, and that noble soul, without crises or conditions to stir into him action?”

― Epictetus

Don’t let misfortune wear you down, use it as fuel instead. 

“Misfortune nobly born is good fortune.”
Marcus Aurelius

Cause and Effect

“But do thou leave as unlawful these winnings, and deal with Cause and Effect, the chancellors of God. In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance, and shalt sit hereafter out of fear from her rotations.” 

Kindly reminder, please don’t smoke right now

But if you turn away from fortune, and from expectation, and instead you begin to work with cause and effect. Put here beautifully “The Chancellors of God”. And work on your will (that is, on the sole thing you have control of), you shall be able to live without the fear of fortune’s rotations, for you’re not relying on fortune, but on yourself and your own hands. If you stop hoping for things to go your way, if you stop expecting people to be as you want them to be, if you’re hoping that the virus is going to magically vanish. You will never be free. 

On the contrary, if you get back to do your work and to focus on what you do can control. You’ll be free from fortune’s chains. 

“If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.”
Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Rely on yourself

“A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”

Stoicism is usually looked upon when everything’s going to shit, and you need a moral pillar to rely on. Then Stoicism goes and tells you that the pillar is not the philosophy itself, but you. Stoicism is just a reminder of the power you have to smile back at death and your fate, no matter how fucked up it might be. You are strong because of you. 

When things go well, you need to be careful not to become dependent upon them, for you’ll depend less on you. With self-reliance, you’ll be the pillar of your life and you’ll know that you will deal effectively with whatever fortune throws at you, be it a virus, or be it fame, or be it death. You will do your duty, which is to live and love as best as you can while you are still here. 

Stoics are men and women of action. If you’re stuck in your house because you cannot go out. Get better at something, whining isn’t going to accomplish anything. If you need to go outside to work because you don’t have enough money or work that allows you to stay at home. Then go outside and work while taking all the precaution measures. Life is not always rose-colored, regardless it has to be dealt with. 

Trust yourself and your reason. Don’t trust panic or fear. 

Now with the Coronavirus, it’s time to put into practice what you’ve read so far about Stoicism. But not just now, really, but forever until the day that you die. 

I’m happy to be alive with you my friend, 

Ricardo Guaderrama 

Thanks for reading,

Ricardo Guaderrama

Special thanks to my Patreons:
Edward Hackett
Michael Thelen
Melville Alexander

Subscribe and receive the Askesis ebook to further develop your practice of stoicism. 
Connect with Stoic Answers