Do the decent thing

My address this morning is entitled ‘Do the decent thing’. Decency is an idea, a virtue, that we in Ireland are content to embrace in a very vernacular way. Decent people are respected, and there is an expectation that the decent thing will be done in face of a difficult challenge, if confronted with a dilemma, or in response to an exhortation. To say of their passing, that someone had led a decent life, is to pay the highest compliment. Our decency has been tested in recent months. It has not, so far, been found wanting.
          With this in mind, I would like to offer some reflection on decency, drawing on ideas and literature beyond our shores. In particular, I will draw on the work and worldview of Albert Camus, the great French novelist, journalist, essayist, and philosopher. Camus was born in Algeria to French pieds noirs parents in 1913. He spent his adult life in Paris. His best-known works, including The Outsider (1942) and The Plague (1947), are exemplars of a so-called absurdist literary style. Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, at the age of 44, and died tragically three years later in a car accident.
          La Peste or The Plague is regarded as one of the great masterpieces of 20th century literature. As the title suggests, it describes a virus that in 1940 spreads uncontrollably from animals to humans and ends up destroying half the population of Oran, an unremarkable town in Algeria. The novel speaks at many levels to our current pandemic. A Google search of its title, or of Camus, reveals many writers and commentators who elaborate on what they see as its relevance, and that of Camus’ worldview, to our times.
          Indeed, Tony Brady quotes Camus in a recent weekly e-mail to us in his Food for Thought section. The piece quoted is from an essay, entitled The Almond Trees, that ruminates on the misery of war and concludes with one of Camus’ most famous quotes. ‘In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.’
          In the novel, The Plague, the main protagonist is a Dr Rieux who works selflessly and relentlessly to heal the sick and to battle pestilence day after day. Amidst all of this he, and indeed Camus, wonder on the human condition, the arbitrariness of death, grief, pity, courage, cowardice, piety, choices about medical intervention, indeed the absurdity of it all. Dr Rieux does not see himself as someone special. He treats everyone, the living and the dying, with equal attention. He just does his job.
          At one point, he says, ‘I have to tell you this: This whole thing is not about heroism. It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency. Asked what decency is, he responds: ‘In general, I can’t say, but in my case I know that it consists of doing my job.’ Later, he adds, ‘I don’t think I have any taste for heroism and sainthood. What interests me is to be a man.’
          Here in Ireland, over the last months we have read much in the newspapers, and in other media, about people in the front line behaving with bravery and self-sacrifice. I am reminded of a profile I read of a Dublin prison officer, anxious about prison overcrowding and the possible arrival of a Covid-19 outbreak. He says that when all this is over, he will be proud that he turned up for work each day during the crisis to do his job.
          For Albert Camus, decency is the virtue or quality he most prized. But it is a quality linked to daily effort, to getting the job done, to keeping the shoulder to the wheel, to a focus on the task at hand, even if this task is repetitive and sometimes boring. Indeed, he goes further and suggests that this notion of decency underpins our contentment, even our happiness.
          In The Myth of Sisyphus, a philosophical essay written in 1942, Camus muses on Sisyphus, the Greek mythological figure who is condemned by the gods, for eternity, to repeatedly roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again once he has got it to the top. At one level, Camus sees the legend as a metaphor for the individual’s persistent struggle against the essential absurdity of life. On another level, he asks us to consider whether Sisyphus had at least a task, that it was his own, and that it might be the beginning of his contentment. Camus writes, ‘The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’
          Inspired by Camus’ contemplation on the Sisyphus myth, Roger Cohan, a New York Times’ columnist offers a memorable essay on decency, task and happiness, penned in 2015. Entitled ‘Here’s My Secret: Mow the Lawn’, I quote a short extract. ‘Life is a succession of tasks rather than a cascade of inspiration, an experience that is more repetitive than revelatory, at least on a day-to-day basis. The thing is to perform the task well and find reward even in the mundane.’
          He continues, ‘I’ve grown suspicious of the inspirational. It’s overrated. I suspect duty – that half-forgotten word – may be more related to happiness than we think. Want to be happy? Mow the lawn. Collect the dead leaves. Paint the room. Do the dishes. Get a job. Labour until the fatigue is in your very bones. Persist day after day. Be stoical. Never whine. Think less about the why of what you do than getting it done.’ Cohen concludes. ‘In the everyday task at hand, for woman or man, happiness lurks.’
          Last week we got a lovely long email from Irish friends who are hunkered down in deepest rural France where they have lived happily for over 20 years. Their isolation is similar to all of ours except that they can only go out shopping once a day and one person at a time, and require a signed and dated document to do so. However there appears to be no absence of fine French food, wine, and sun. The email ends, ‘In the meantime we can all enjoy the spring and wonder if the world will change for the better when the crisis ends.’
          Will the world change for the better after the coronavirus? This is a question that writers, thinkers, media commentators, we ourselves, are wondering about. Might the obsession with economic growth be reduced in order to mitigate climate change? Might we have a single-tier health system in this country? Might all this decency continue?
          Camus, I am afraid, would be sceptical of such improvement in humankind. He saw limitations to human perfectibility. Unlike most of his Parisian fellow writers who had embraced communism wholeheartedly, for example, Sartre, Camus remained deeply unconvinced of the utopian project that was the Soviet Union. For him, the grand narrative was one of circularity rather than an upward linear progress. Plagues and viruses had a habit of returning. Indeed, he saw them as skulking within us. What sense is there in children suffering? What sense is there in the arbitrary cruelty of men? Death appears so random. The whole world is absurd.
          Here is the popular philosopher Alain de Botton writing about Camus and The Plague on 19th March. I quote, ‘For Camus, when it comes to dying, there is no progress in history; there is no escape from our frailty. Being alive always was and will always remain an emergency; it is truly an inescapable “underlying condition.” Plague or no plague, there is always, as it were, the plague, if what we mean by that is a susceptibility to sudden death, an event that can render our lives instantaneously meaningless. This is what Camus meant when he talked about the “absurdity” of life. Recognising this absurdity should lead us not into despair, but to a tragicomic redemption, a softening of the heart, a turning away from judgement and moralising, towards joy and gratitude.’ (end of quote)
          A worldview that allows for redemption, however tragicomic, is not entirely bleak. Indeed, it admits of a cautious and circumspect optimism. Camus says in the novel, ‘What’s true of all evils in the world is true of the plague as well – it helps men to rise above themselves.’
          Let us reflect for a moment on the possible origins of Camus’ worldview. He lived through the rise of fascism and World War II in which the death toll was over 70 million people or 3% of the world’s population at the time. He fought in the French Resistance, like indeed his fellow Parisian, Samuel Beckett, who wrote his own absurdist masterpiece ‘Waiting for Godot’ in 1947, the same year in which The Plague was published. Perhaps it is understandable that both men saw humankind as flawed, with limited possibility for progress. Both shared a restrained capacity for optimism – a kind of pessimistic hopefulness.
          Yet what happened in Europe in the subsequent decades? The Marshall Plan, introduced by the United States, lead to more than 30 years of unbroken economic growth, Les Trente Glorieuses. The greatest political and economic project of our lifetimes, the European Union, came to fruition. The Soviet Union, Camus might add, imploded. So is Camus’ absurdist view of the world justified? Is it indeed the case that (quote) ‘everyone has inside himself, this plague, because no one in the world, no one, is immune’?
          If Camus is talking to us about the coronavirus from across 70 years, another voice appeals to us with more immediacy. Pope Francis speaks with great compassion and humanity about the pandemic and the death, suffering, and inequality in its wake. His tone is cautiously optimistic and redemptive in possibility. Speaking in The Tablet, the international Catholic news weekly, on the 8 April, he says the pandemic can be a ‘place of conversion’. I quote, ‘But let us not lose our memory once all this is past, let us not file it away and go back to where we were… Where we are living now is a place of metanoia (conversion), and we have the chance to begin. So let’s not let it slip from us, and let’s move ahead.’
          Some 25 years ago Rita and I visited Camus’ grave in the small village of Lourmarin in sunny Provence. It was early July and flowering lavender covered the simple but well-tended grave in the town’s cemetery. I was quite moved by the visit. And now looking out at the garden, I imagine myself murmuring, ‘do things differently at the end of this scourge, do them more equitably, more ecologically, with greater respect for the environment, or we will be smitten again. Do the decent thing.’
          In conclusion, there are glimmers of hope. This plague has brought us fear. But it has also brought us a gift, a possibility to reset our spiritual compass, to strive to do better. The road ahead will be difficult and challenging. It will require strength. We must all continue to do the decent thing. But remember we have shown great strength over the past two months. Camus’ ‘invincible summer’ will not elude us.

Aiden O’Driscoll                            26thApril 2020
Dublin Unitarian Church