Leave a comment

Notes from the Plague: Searching for Heroes

Like most people, I watched the Ebola plague tear through Africa two years ago with a feeling of helpless horror. I saw the victims dying by the thousands on television, all eulogized by the same stark words: “No cure.” There seemed to be some unstoppable and malevolent force in the universe, seeking not only the destruction of human life, but hope itself. In many ways, the plague was the ultimate triumph of nature’s indifference over humanity’s willpower. It was a glimpse into the unraveling of our fragile civilization. We couldn’t run from it. We couldn’t beat it. We could only dig deep and fight to survive. And that’s what we did. We resisted, until the narrative began to change — until there were no longer oceans of helpless victims. Amidst the chaos and despair, heroes began to emerge.

I read the remarkable accounts of doctors, nurses and humanitarian aides flying into the heart of the plague to contain its outbreak. Many were foreign volunteers who traveled deep into the beleaguered cities of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Others were local physicians who chose to remain behind in plague-ridden villages to stem the torrent of death. Their mission was chaotic, quasi-suicidal and practically speaking, hopeless. There was no cure. The hospitals of these countries were in shambles. In Liberia, one in ten health care workers had succumbed to the disease, while hundreds of others had fled for their lives. Given these circumstances, who would volunteer to go into such a place? More importantly, why?

Were they heroes, these health care workers who wandered into plague-ridden cities to help the dying? Most of us would think so. And yet, if you asked them, I am almost certain that all would shun the title. More likely, they would tell you that they acted out of a sense of civic duty, decency, rationality or obligation to their fellow man. In truth, no one ever perceives themselves to be a “hero,” because the word implies a kind of moral exceptionalism that few of us would dare to claim. Yet, we as a society continue to insist that certain deeds and certain people merit the laurels of “heroism.” Perhaps heroism is not a form of moral exceptionalism, but rather something much simpler. Perhaps it is an act of ordinariness in extraordinary times.

In his celebrated 1947 novel, The Plague, the French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus argues that true heroism resides in the persistence of common decency during times of great difficulty. His book depicts the tribulations of ordinary citizens living in the coastal African city of Oran. The town falls victim to the scourge of a new bubonic plague, which kills quickly and indiscriminately. Under the looming specter of total annihilation, the people of Oran discover that fighting for normalcy can be an act of heroism. They come to realize that their commitment to an ordinary life — as doctors, barristers, mailmen, coroners and bureaucrats — embodies a deeper commitment to the welfare of their fellow man. This sense of dedication to humanity, Camus argues, is the hallmark of true heroism. It requires from all of us some daily sacrifice, a sense of civic duty and trust in our fellow humans. Thus, Camus shows his readers that heroism need not be a feat of grandness. A million small acts of decency by ordinary people can form something just as beautiful.

The champion of this philosophy of “ordinary heroism” is the narrator of the novel, Dr. Bernard Rieux. The doctor is a principled figure, described early in the book as “sick and tired of the world he lived in — though he had much liking for his fellow man—and… resolved, for his part, to have no truck with injustice or compromises with the truth.” Dr. Rieux believes in the fundamental goodness of humanity, just as strongly as he believes that there are no universal morals to govern us. In his eyes, there is no such thing as a “hero;” there are only human beings, frightened and fallible and fickle in their myriad ways. At one point he admits, “I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints.  Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man.”

But what does it mean to “be a man?” Camus might argue that it means to be ordinary, to be kind, to accept life as it is and to try to spread happiness to others. Within this definition, one perceives both the simplicity and extraordinary difficulty of “being a decent person.” As Rieux’s friend aptly summarizes in his response: “Yes, we’re both after the same thing, but I’m less ambitious.”

Later in the novel, Dr. Rieux comes across a young journalist who is attempting to escape the city quarantine to reunite with his lover. Dr. Rieux bids the young man good luck in his endeavors and faults him for nothing in his thinking. Caught by surprise, the journalist lashes out in anger, accusing Rieux of chasing the selfish martyrdom of heroic ideals. “I don’t believe in heroism,” the journalist snaps. “I know it’s easy and I’ve learned it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves.”

To which Dr. Rieux replies, “You’re right … quite right, and for nothing in the world would I try to dissuade you from what you’re going to do; it seems to me absolutely right and proper. However, there’s one thing I must tell you: there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is — common decency.”

This brings me back to my original question. What do we mean when we celebrate someone as a “hero?” I believe that heroism is not a noble deed. It is not a singular achievement. Rather, heroism is the recognition of something much more basic. It means trusting our fellow man to do the right thing. It means never giving up on each other. Ultimately, for the people of Oran — like those in Ebola-stricken Africa — heroism is the celebration of the most extraordinary thing our civilization has ever created: common human decency.

To end with the words of Tolkien’s wizard, Gandalf, “[Some people] believe that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I found it is the small things. Every day deeds by ordinary folk that keeps darkness at bay.”

Image source: photograph by United Press International licensed under the public domain.

Matthew Trifan Matthew Trifan (6 Posts)

Contributing Writer Emeritus

University of Pennsylvania

Matt Trifan is a current resident of emergency medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. He was a former medical student at the University of Pennsylvania. In his free time, he reads, writes, travels, and never misses a chance for brunch. He owes his life philosophy to Albert Camus and Adventure Time, equally.