Dear brothers and sisters of RCAC,
- Dr. Henry: Be kind, be calm, be safe
Dr.Bonnie Henry, our Provincial Health Officer in B.C., has become a household name. Her reputation has gone beyond our province, nationally and internationally, because of her amazing success to help us flatten the curve of the outbreak of the Coronavirus here in B.C. She has become a popular figure for her calm, compassionate demeanour during the crisis. One of the catchphrases Dr. Henry uses is “Be kind, be calm and be safe.” When I hear it repeatedly, I start to ask myself what this has to do with controlling the spread of COVID-19. Then I hear her saying that the novel The Plague by Albert Camus (1948) has been a big influence in her thinking (Mike McArthur/CBC). I immediately took note and revisited some of Camus’ writings (which I had read ages ago in my early university days but have completely forgotten). I hope to discern how Camus plays such a vital role in Dr. Henry’s wisdom in her advice to us all, but then the greater purpose is to go beyond that and anchor this word of wisdom on the firm foundation of Scriptures.
- Who was Camus?
For those who wonder who Camus is, here is a very brief introduction. Albert Camus(1913–1960), born in French Algeria, was a journalist, author, and philosopher advocating absurdism. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature at the age of 44 in 1957, but died in a car accident in 1960. His notable works include The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, The Rebel, and The Plague. The Plague (La Peste) (1948) was a novel about the fictional epidemic-ridden town of Oran,which suffers a horrific outbreak of bubonic plague. Camus examines a government's ability to impose authoritarian measures in the midst of a pandemic. As the town's government turns into tyranny, the question is raised on how people should resist in such a situation. Camus’ novel The Plague was intended as a metaphor for the recently-ended Nazi occupation of France during World War II. So the parallel to our current situation in the pandemic (and other socio-political unrest) is the issue of how we respond to rule by a government (one described as authoritarian in The Plague).
- An extraordinary fear
Dr.Henry said in an interview with CBC Radio (April 24, 2020), “The Plague by Albert Camus captures the psyche of people. One of the things that I've learned around chasing infectious diseases is that they evoke a fear in people that is very different from other types of disasters. A lot of it comes from not understanding and not knowing and not being able to see these things that are causing disease.
Camus wrote about the resistance to the Nazis in the Second World War. But that the psyche was the same as what we see with infectious disease outbreaks, where there's something that is unseen that moves through the population that strikes people down.”
So we see here Dr. Henry is mainly drawing attention to the extraordinary fear in people as portrayed by Camus in The Plague. We do well to remember and acknowledge this psyche of fear that we are all experiencing. We can certainly see how there is an extraordinary fear common in both the Plague by Camus and in the current pandemic. We need to combat this fear.
- Dr. Henry and Camus on “vigilance”
To combat this fear, Camus said, “All the rest—health, integrity, purity (if you like)—is a product of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention.And it needs tremendous will power, a never ending tension of the mind, to avoid such lapses.’” (*253)
We can all see here the inspiration behind the vigilance of all the measures taken to fight COVID-19 displayed by Dr. Henry. “A product of a vigilance that must never falter” is the spirit that drives her in all the fight against the pandemic. This vigilance involves being kind, calm and staying safe.
- Camus - Vigilance without hope?
We now understand the importance of “vigilance” in combating the fear of the Coronavirus, but this raises the questions of how we stay vigilant and what gives us hope? I have selected a few quotes using what commentator Emily Ruth Mace has noted. Can this “vigilance”itself bring us real hope?
On this and the search for meaning, Camus has this to say, “But for those others who aspired beyond and above the human individual toward something they could not even imagine, there had been no answer. [….] It was only right that those whose desires are limited to man and his humble yet formidable love should enter, if only now and then, into their reward.” (*300-301)
After stating that there is “no answer” on the question of meaning, Camus was willing only to admit that “It was only right that those whose desires are limited to man and his humble yet formidable love should enter, if only now and then, into their reward.”Pessimistic Camus sees “meaning in human love” as something that some may be able to achieve “only now and then.”
On how we are meant to heal the world, Camus added, “Nonetheless,he knew that 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.” (*308)
To Camus, there is “no final victory”, only “never ending fight.” We see hidden here a subtle fatalism and pessimism in Camus, because he does not believe in ultimate hope. Here is the point of departure between Camus and me, as I do not share Camus’ pessimistic existentialism. From my perspective as a pastor, my intention is to send a message of hope that is found in Christ. Thus, I hasten to say that I am definitely not advocating Camus’ existentialistic philosophy of life and death, which rejects the ultimate hope offered by our Christian faith.
- Our Christian hope in Christ
With this very brief review we can now see how Dr. Henry may have gotten some of her attitude of “vigilance” from Camus’ The Plague. But we have also discovered that Camus, while being very “descriptive”in his work The Plague, was certainly not “prescriptive,” other than urging a strange fatalism in facing the plague.In the upcoming weeks I would like rather to share how our loving and kind Saviour Jesus Christ, who calms the storms in our lives, is more than able to keep us safe, as the Church He builds is “The Safest Place on Earth” (Larry Crabb). Yes, be kind, be calm and be safe, IN CHRIST. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (I Pet. 1:3)
Your servant in Christ,
Rev. Simon Lee,
* Quoted from (Camus’ The Plague: Coronavirus Quotes, April 6, 2020). All quotes are from Albert Camus, The Plague, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Vintage Books,, 1948).