Monday, July 6, 2020

The Plague, Breath, and Work

What remains when the intoxicating distractions of life are removed?

Albert Camus in The Plague (1947) engages this question, and nearly 70 years later, so does Doctor Paul Kalanithi in When Breath Becomes Air (2016).

I read both of these books on vacation at Ocean Isle, NC late last month; this was not exactly light, uplifting beach reading.

Before the plague engulfed the Algerian coastal town of Oran, Camus’ narrator notes that:

Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, “doing business.” Naturally they don’t eschew such simpler pleasure as love-making, sea bathing, going to the pictures. But, very sensibly they reserve these past times for Saturday afternoons and Sundays and employ the rest of the week in making money, as much as possible . . . . Nevertheless there still exist towns and countries where people have now and then an inkling of something different. In general it doesn’t change their lives. Still they have had an intimation, and that’s so much to the good. Oran, however, seems to be a town without intimations; in other words, completely modern.

In sharp contrast to the citizens of Oran, Ben Ellis had steadier footing in advance of tragedy. Ben Ellis was a teacher at the private school connected to our church in Nashville (CPA). Our current pandemic has been clarifying for me in many ways, and it has convinced me that Saint Paul was correct when he wrote that faith, hope, and love are the things that remain. Ben Ellis was already building his life on those three things prior to his cancer diagnosis. As his condition worsened in September of 2016, over 400 students gathered outside of his home to sing worship songs with him. Ben Ellis died about 10 days later. Difficulties can clarify, and Ben’s death clarified that he spent his time focused on meaningful things outside of himself. Watch the clip below to see clear evidence of a man who loved God, his students, and his family well. (His daughter is so poised and thoughtful, and the headmaster obviously valued him).  

But for many of the citizens of Oran, and many of us in the individualistic, materialistic United States, difficulties can also show that we rest on a shaky foundation. If we are focused primarily on financial success and personal status, something like a pandemic or cancer can destroy the entire endeavor in short order.

In terms of “success,” as it is typically defined in the United States, few could be said to surpass Doctor Paul Kalanithi. He followed an undergraduate and masters degree at Stanford University with medical school at Yale. At the time of his cancer diagnosis, he was in his last year of neurosurgical training as the chief resident back at Stanford University. But even with just a few months left to live, Paul went back to work. The purpose of work does not have to be centered on finances and status. In Paul’s case, he returned to work, I think, primarily because he was doing meaningful work with people he cared about. Impending death clarified that status was of little importance, and he turned down a prestigious and lucrative job offer far from family. I do wonder if he would have taken that job in Wisconsin, but for his diagnosis. From his writing, it sounds like he probably would and that may have been a mistake given his underlying priorities. We often lean toward finances and status, even if our highest priorities lie elsewhere. Hopefully, this pandemic can give us all some time for reflection and help us make decisions that elevate those things that are most important.

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/business_law/2020/07/the-plague-breath-and-work.html

Business School, Current Affairs, Haskell Murray, Religion, Teaching | Permalink

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