The Value of Suffering: Lessons from a Plague
By Scot DuFour, alumnus, American Public University
The situation in which humanity finds itself—with people around the world isolating themselves in their homes, scared to have contact with others for fear of contracting COVID-19—made me think of the writings of philosopher, author, and journalist, Albert Camus. I studied Camus for my senior project when I was earning my philosophy degree at American Public University.
In 1947, Camus published The Plague. His prose and the subject of his works can follow a dark path, but if you work to understand his message, his writing can provide a kind of peace and understanding about what it means to suffer and struggle during difficult times. This novel has many lessons to offer all humans, but there are some particularly important insights relevant to public servants like police officers, firefighters, EMTs, and healthcare professionals.
Lessons from The Plague
In The Plague, Camus transports the reader to the town of Oran in Algeria, the nation of Camus’ birth. The people there are comfortable in their habits and confident in their importance in the world. They are concerned with making money and their societal status, finding only true recreation and joy on rare occasions. Suddenly a plague, borne by rats, begins infecting people and unleashes a terrifying wave of death and anxiety among the population. (Camus scholars believe he had in mind the deadly cholera epidemic in Oran in 1849.)
As the plague spreads, the residents of Oran are in disbelief and many are too arrogant to think they will ever be touched by this disease. This scenario should sound familiar by now.
The main character of the book is a physician called Dr. Rieux, who fights the plague in a physical but also an emotional capacity. Society comes to a stop as hundreds of people begin to die. Dr. Rieux eventually comes to see the plague as a tangible manifestation of how life is in general, regardless of whether or not there’s an outbreak. “But what does it mean, the plague? It’s life, that’s all,” writes Camus.
The people of Oran end up suffering greatly, and while some find justifications or blame for the plague, Rieux sees the suffering as a random example of life in general. The plague will never be fully vanquished even after the virus itself is defeated because there will always be another. This suffering is just one type of many that life will throw at us.
Finding Meaning in Suffering
As an existentialist Camus wrote a lot about finding meaning in life despite the great deal of suffering that everyone will experience at some point in their lives. Another work by Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, tells the story of Sisyphus who was punished by Zeus and forced to roll a boulder up a hill repeatedly for all of eternity. Every time Sisyphus rolled his boulder to the top of the hill, it would roll back down. Everyone can empathize with Sisyphus from time to time; feeling like you’re stuck doing the same thing every day for your whole life.
It is so easy to get wrapped up in our daily routine that many people come to rely on that routine, even if they don’t like it. Having a routine convinces us of the importance of our mission, whether that be in business, medicine, law enforcement, or any other role in life. We come to see ourselves as necessary, important, and we often become suspicious of outsiders.
We all live amid a type of plague, whether we recognize it or not, whether there is actually a viral pandemic or not. That plague is the absurdity of a universe in which we strive so hard to find true meaning, but it never comes. Our individual struggle for meaning is the greatest struggle of our lives and yet searching for the answer can make us feel like Sisyphus. “The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need [for justification] and the unreasonable silence of the world,” Camus said.
Could ‘The Plague’ of 2020 Be Beneficial to Us?
Throughout most of human history, what lay beyond the horizon was a mystery. Early man used to struggle to find food and understand the cause of his illnesses. People were once amazed when the Pony Express could deliver mail from Missouri to California in only 10 days. Today, we can video chat across the globe and send email instantaneously. We’ve effectively mapped the globe and are no longer surprised to see people from different countries or cultures.
Humans Have Lost Many Opportunities to Struggle
While progress brings myriad benefits, there are downsides as well. Humans have lost many opportunities to struggle. I strongly believe that people who work in law enforcement, public service, healthcare, and similar professions thrive on struggles and challenges. It’s similar to why so many people love sports and competition—people want to find a rock to roll uphill.
For me, the COVID-19 pandemic has been an example of a genuine struggle. The other struggle that I remember very well was the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But this time, the suffering is truly global; no one can hide from this virus. There is no “they” or “them” when it comes to COVID-19. All of humanity will be changed by this.
Camus wrote: “There is scarcely any passion without struggle.” How true these words are! Americans came together after 9/11 in ways most of us have never seen before. We found a common struggle and it bonded us together. Now I see that common struggle again, as people come together during the coronavirus pandemic. We excel when our backs are to the wall.
How the Coronavirus Outbreak Can Make Us All Stronger
COVID-19 reminds us just how fallible and vulnerable we really are. This moment in history should humble us and remind us to appreciate a beautiful view, art, music, and quiet time with loved ones.
Let this struggle and suffering shatter our habits and routines and help us find a connection with every other person, even if it’s only virtually. Communities and cultures may differ, but the absurdity of life is the one thing we all share; it is the true human nature.
There are two more quotes from The Plague that I think can resonate with us all during this challenging time: “There are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences,” Camus wrote. When COVID-19 is vanquished we will face yet another plague in some other form; let’s not join forces with the pestilences.
“I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with the saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man,” said the Nobel laureate in literature. Don’t be quick to pass judgment or make yourself out to be a martyr. As humans we’re meant to struggle and it’s the struggle that brings out the best in us.
About the Author: Scot DuFour has been a police officer since 2004 and is currently a Field Training Officer with a police department in Colorado. He was previously an investigator in a domestic violence prosecutions unit for a district attorney’s office, a police officer with the Phoenix Police Department, and a Task Force Officer with the Drug Enforcement Administration. He is a graduate of American Public University with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a master’s degree in criminal justice. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.
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