I had breakfast with a friend last week. We each rode our motorcycles to meet up. The day was bracingly crisp, bright but a bit hazy. Steam curled off the river. The aspens had turned shimmery gold, the grasses a wild array of hues.
We’d not seen one another, my friend and I, since the pandemic began in March. There was a lot to catch up on. He’s a musician, and the first thing the lockdown did was dry up a major source of his income – touring his music. He had to figure out other ways to make money. But the lockdown also unlocked things for him – more time with family, a welcome slowing down, a fresh burst of creativity.
I left our breakfast encouraged. But I also left thinking what a mixed bag of things this pandemic is. For some, it’s been a gift – a time of rest, of discovery, of creativity. For others, it’s been a bane – a time of grueling work, or no work at all, of surviving, of rising anxiety. For a lot of us, it’s been both. My days have fluctuated between gratitude and stress, being rushed off my feet and bored out of my mind, fretting one hour, rejoicing the next.
The stuff I treasure: I’ve never walked so much in my life. Or cooked. I’ve written more in the last seven months than I typically do in two years. I built a kayak, and am kind of proud of it, and got to explore the far sides of big lakes with it. I had many evenings laughing and storytelling on the back deck with good friends. My wife and I feel closer than ever.
The stuff I could do without: waking in the wee hours, sick with worry, sometimes wild with panic. Having to scold myself into doing chores. Sitting listlessly and staring blankly, only to grow more listless. Hoarding. Irritability.
And I struggled with a terrible disappointment. It wasn’t over a deep loss. It was over a forced change in plans.
My wife and I were on a sabbatical and were supposed to spend all spring in Europe, mostly in France. It didn’t happen. Well, 12 days of it happened, and then it ended. We were there so that I could do some research for a book (more of which in an upcoming post). But Covid sent us scrambling back to Canada, and back into winter, into an altered reality that we kept thinking would end in a week or so, until we got to wondering if it will ever end.
You know the rest of this story, because it’s some version of your own.
But here’s where worlds collide: Albert Camus, the Nobel Prize winning novelist, lived in the early 1940s in the French village where we spent 12 days in March. It was there he began writing his most famous novel, The Plague (Le Peste in French). It’s about a mysterious and deadly virus that breaks out – in the case of the novel, the outbreak is in only one city, quickly quarantined from the rest of the world. But the plague goes on for months and months, and gets worse and worse. It kills thousands. It alters everything.
Cheryl and I both read The Plague at the height of the lockdown. That made for strange reading indeed, and did nothing to assuage our anxiety. But it also awakened something good in us. Camus was not religious, but his key concern in the book – indeed, in his life – was the idea of becoming a saint: choosing to do the good regardless of the costs, the consequences, or the rewards, either earthly or heavenly.
Camus thought sainthood was the chief goal of life. But his version of sainthood was agnostic, even atheistic. Is it possible, he wondered, that we need no religious motivation to pursue a life of unwavering goodness? Can we be good without God? Camus suggests, not only that it’s possible, but preferable: that pursuing the good with no incentive whatsoever, with no hope of any reward, with no confidence that what I’m doing makes any difference at all – that, Camus thought, is a higher and purer form of sainthood than the religious kind.
I’m not convinced. But I am challenged. Since reading The Plague, I’ve been asking myself why I do what I do. Do I do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing? Or am I always, at least in the back of my mind, seeking some reward, some human or divine “Atta boy!”?
This past weekend I was boating with two friends. We saw a dinghy, tied to a buoy, that was swamped with water. The boat was sunk down to its gunnels. Another wave or two would sink it completely.
We debated whether to bail it or not. All we had on hand was a small plastic cup, so this was a big undertaking. One of my friends said, “Let’s do it. Maybe God will give us extra points.”
“Or maybe,” I said, “the boat owner will see us and thank us lavishly.”
We all laughed. We all bailed. And then we carried on.
But I left wondering if God loves it best when we do the good for no points and no thanks at all.
I also had two books launch in the past six months. I invite you to check them out, and let me know what you think.