Why School Leaders Should Read Camus
Back in 2010, I became fascinated by an online project, Fear.less. By tackling the subject of fear and anxiety face on, this NYC-based project team regularly published stories designed to inspire its readers to live a more courageous and fearless life.
As we move through the stages of the current pandemic, one of the most noticeable features of this entire episode is the underlying narrative of fear that is never far from any conversation.
So what are we all afraid of?
I’d dare to suggest that, for most of us at least, it all comes down to one thing: we can no longer predict the future. We don’t know when our schools will open again, nor how they will look when they finally do. We don’t know how to predict future enrolment, so it is harder than ever to budget and make future plans. We don’t even know if we will end up getting sick and what that will mean for us and those we love.
We have lived our lives and run our schools to this point with the benefit of predictability, pretty much always knowing what lies just around the corner. And, in a moment, this all changed. Life’s crystal ball has been shattered into a thousand pieces and suddenly it feels like we’ve entirely lost control.
Enter Albert Camus.
In 1947, Camus published The Plague, the story of a deadly and contagious disease and its impact on Oran, a town in Northern Algeria. For Camus, this catastrophic event forces the town’s residents to remember the vulnerability of human existence; forces them to confront the brutal fact that ‘everyone has inside it himself this plague, because no one in the world, no one, can ever be immune.’ In other words, the plague is nothing more than a momentary reminder that we never were in as much control as we imagined. Life, whether we are prepared to admit it or not, is always configured by unpredictability and risk. The plague is just a moment in time when the veil is lifted and we see the way things really are.
So how do we move forward? Do we throw our hands up in despair and fatalistic acceptance of what lies ahead, or do we arm ourselves with the language of immortality and certitude, blindly moving forward with what we’ve always done?
If Camus was here today to advise us, I suggest that he would say that this is not a time to drown in pity or existential despair. Neither is it a time to pretend that we are invulnerable to this disease. It is rather a time to remind ourselves and those around us that our fear, our lack of prescience, and our vulnerability is who we really are.
And that being truly fearless is to face these anxieties with courage and humility, not pretending that we can somehow rise above them or deny their existence altogether.
Being truly fearless, in other words, is to step into the future, even when it’s hard to see around the next corner.