Finding Meaning in Desperate Times

lady among viruses

Photo Illustration by Mark Riechers. Original images by Elena Mozhvilo, Makeo and the CDC.

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Original Air Date: 
May 23, 2020

We’ve all been changed by the experience of living through a pandemic. We figured out how to sanitize groceries, mute ourselves on Zoom and keep from killing our roommates. But we’re also tackling bigger, existential questions — how can we, individually and collectively, find meaning in the experience of this pandemic?

Window man

David Kessler is one of the foremost experts on death and grieving. He’s written many books on the subject, and worked with Elizabeth Kubler Ross on famous five stages of grief. He recently added a sixth: finding meaning.

Tyrone  Muhammad

Tyrone Muhammad, also known as "Muhammad the Mortician," is the funeral director at Newark’s Peace and Glory Home for Funerals. He spent decades trying to stop the epidemic of gun violence in the black community he serves, but nothing prepared him for a pandemic.


The poet Nikki Giovanni, reading her poem "One Ounce of Truth Benefits Like a Ripple on a Pond."

light in the dark

Philosopher John Kaag discusses how the 19th century thinker William James might help us seek meaning and purpose in a confusing time.

Albert Camus in the 1950s

Albert Camus’s first novel, "The Stranger," speaks strongly to the search for meaning. It’s the story of an alienated man who commits a senseless murder. Literary critic Alice Kaplan calls it "the perfect Black Lives Matter book."

Show Details 📻
May 23, 2020
December 26, 2020
September 25, 2021
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:15):

It's To the Best of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps. A week or so into the pandemic, I had every reason to feel lucky. I was healthy, safe, working from home, and yet I felt like I was carrying around this heavy weight of sadness all the time. And then I ran across a piece in the Harvard Business Review, with a title that explained, that discomfort you're feeling, is grief. It was an interview with psychologist, David Kessler. He's one of the world's foremost experts on grief. And it was about how we find meaning, even at the worst of times, even in the face of trauma.

David Kessler (01:06):

I counseled someone after the Las Vegas shooting. She was at the concert, saw people die around her. One of the things that I said to her, is if it's just all horrific, it's harder on your psyche. I said, "I'm so curious. Can we go back to the story and you review it with me, and just tell me if you can find any good that happened in the shooting." And at first she went, "No, of course not." And then I went, "Let's go back and tell me every detail." And all of a sudden she said, "Oh my gosh. There was a guy in a wheelchair, and people grabbed him and put him under the stage for safety." I said, "That's the good." If we can recognize that good, it doesn't take away a horrific shooting or a pandemic, but it helps us integrate it all. It helps it not just be post-traumatic trauma, that lives on in us.

Anne Strainchamps (02:49):

David Kessler worked with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, on the famous five stages of grief. And he recently added a sixth, finding meaning. And that's our subject this hour. How can we individually and collectively find meaning in the experience of this pandemic?

David Kessler (03:12):

Great question. So let me do the stages for you, around the pandemic. Denial, "This can't be happening in our modern world. Really? There's a virus we don't know how to fight. This can't be." Anger, "I'm going to lose my job over this? Well, that destroys me. That upsets me. I'm furious about that." Bargaining, "All right, let me get this straight. If we stay home for two weeks, everything will be back to normal, right? That's the deal?" Depression, sadness, "This is going to go on? You're not sure of the end date? Well, this is sad." And then acceptance, "All right. This is going on, this is our reality. What can we do now in this?" Acceptance is where the power lies, where the action takes place. Then meaning. Meaning we find by recognizing meaningful moments. I'll give you some examples. I live on a block. I don't know. There's 30 houses on my block.

David Kessler (04:16):

I've never known a neighbor. I maybe knew two neighbors on each side. In a pandemic, we now have everyone's phone number. We're all on a text chain together. Someone's going to the grocery store, we say, "Hey, the elderly man at the end of the street, does he need anything?" That text is a really meaningful moment we're all having now. In this bad, there is good. If we name these meaningful moments, and we see some of the pockets of light in the darkness, when we come out of this, we are more likely to have post-traumatic growth instead of post-traumatic stress.

Anne Strainchamps (04:57):

So why do you think just naming this as grief has helped everybody feel better?

David Kessler (05:02):

A couple of reasons. I think this pandemic is different than anything we've dealt with. The uncertainty is unnerving. And then people were feeling something in them that they didn't identify, that was also unnerving. So I think when they heard grief, they were like, "Oh my gosh. That's it. This is it. That's what this sadness is. That's what this heaviness is." There was something about naming it that decreased the uncertainty in us.

Anne Strainchamps (05:35):

Yeah. Funny how that works.

David Kessler (05:36):

It's interesting, in the pandemic, someone was saying the other day, "How can I be happy?" And I say, "Happy might be a stretch right now. I'm sanitizing my groceries. How can I find happiness? I mean, I'm afraid to wash my face in the shower. I'm afraid if I touched my face in the shower, I'm going to give myself the coronavirus. How's there happiness in this? I'm that paranoid. That's how we're all living right now."

Anne Strainchamps (06:05):

The funny thing is, when you said, "It's okay to not be happy right now, of course you're not." I could feel my shoulders drop.

David Kessler (06:14):

It takes energy to keep your feelings down. Yes. It's a by-product of our self-help movement. We're the first generation that has the luxury of feelings on feelings. So we feel sad, "But I shouldn't feel sad, because I've got enough food. I feel angry, but I shouldn't be angry, because no one I love has died." And we feel all our feelings and suppress them. So we're exhausted from that. And the truth is, if you allowed yourself to feel the sadness, it would move through you in a few minutes. If you allowed yourself to feel the anger, it would move through you in a few minutes, and you would be done with that feeling and you would go to the next one.

Anne Strainchamps (07:01):

You worked with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

David Kessler (07:03):


Anne Strainchamps (07:03):

And together, the two of you identified the five famous stages of grief. And the final stage was always acceptance, but you've recently added another one, finding meaning. So what's the difference?

David Kessler (07:18):

Yeah. My younger son died a few years ago. And I thought when I was in my darkness, what is the light when you're in this kind of pain? And I'd study Victor Frankel's work. And I was just so amazed at, how do you find light in the darkness? How did they do that? How did they appreciate a sunset in a concentration camp? And I thought about meaning, and I began to research it and read about it and interview people, people that have a spouse die after 30 years or a parent die or a child die. And I realized that people who found meaning, it didn't take the pain away of loss, but it gave it a cushion. And the cushion held the pain.

Anne Strainchamps (08:10):

Tell me what you mean by meaning.

David Kessler (08:13):

People hear that and they go, "Wait a minute. There's no meaning in my loved one being murdered. There's no meaning in my loved one dying from COVID-19." I agree. Meaning is what you will do after. It can be your change because you knew this person, it can be your change by how they died and you want to prevent it, it can be how you connect to them, what you do in their honor.

Anne Strainchamps (08:38):

One way people find meaning, I think, is through memorial services. What are we going to do after a pandemic? How do you do that collectively, when millions of people are out of work and hundreds of thousands of people have died? It's almost like we need a global memorial service.

David Kessler (08:58):

It is different than anything we have seen, since probably I think World War II, with the AIDS crisis, with 9/11, with Vietnam, you're able to bury the dead, you're able to gather. You're able to have those rituals. We're not having the rituals these days. Not only that, for anyone who's had any recent grief, every grief group in the country got shut down. One of the things I did, because I was looking that this was so painful. And I know when I'm just feeling helpless and in pain, I know the antidote for me is to take action. So I set up an online Facebook group for everyone, whether it's COVID-19 or your loved one died right before that, who's in grief and had nowhere to go. And I thought, "Oh, it'll be interesting. I'll get a few people in." The first day, over a thousand people. Now, I go on daily, twice a day-

Anne Strainchamps (09:59):

Twice a day?

David Kessler (10:00):

... for people in grief to let them know, the world is not recognizing your loss now, and you can't mark it and can't have a ritual, but we're here to see you. We're here to witness your grief in the meantime.

Anne Strainchamps (10:15):

I've been trying to think about how we come out of COVID. And one thing that really struck me in your book is, you talked about one way to find meaning in somebody's death is to remember that you are the legacy of the person that you loved, whose died. So I've been trying to think, what would change if we thought, all of us, we are the legacy of the 200,000 people who died? What would we do? Would we do anything different?

David Kessler (10:46):

Right. How would we hold that legacy?

Anne Strainchamps (10:49):

Yeah. It feels like that's the choice we have, and that it's important that we talk about it.

David Kessler (10:54):

Right. Do I go back to work and do I just pretend like everything's fine and nothing happened? Or do I go back to work and go, "Everything's changed. What now?" How do we honor them? How do we move forward? How do we make sure that nothing like this happens again? How can we live in a world that's more prepared for this. Every generation gets challenged, this is ours. The question is, what are we going to do after this? Who are we going to be?

Anne Strainchamps (11:35):

David Kessler is one of the foremost experts on death and grieving. He's written many books. The most recent is called Finding Meaning. And if you're interested in his daily free online grief group, you can find the information at After talking with David, one thing I'm wondering, is how to do this kind of grief work collectively, as a nation. David talked about the importance of naming feelings, so maybe we start simply by bearing witness.

Tyrone Muhammad (12:12):

There's a stark reality when you walk inside our funeral home. We have an amazing, beautiful funeral home, very nice laid out, top notch straight in the hood, in the ghetto. It's a very classy, beautiful funeral home. And as soon as you walk in our doors, now you smell death, hit you dead in the stomach. We got innocence all around the place, trying to mask death. It's a disgrace.

Anne Strainchamps (12:39):

Coming up, a report from the front lines of the pandemic, the funeral home in Newark, New Jersey, in the heart of the city's African-American community. And it's To the Best of Our Knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Picture this scene. It's a typical Friday afternoon in Newark, New Jersey. There's a group of young black men, many in gangs, milling around the liquor store on the corner of South 15th and 10th streets. And then a van pulls up. On one side, there's a painting of Tupac, on the other, photos of dead bodies. Bodies of young black men killed in gang violence. And on the roof of the van, there is a coffin painted in big orange letters, three words, stop the killing. Tyrone Muhammad, also known as Mohammed the mortician, owns that van. He's the funeral director at Newark's Peace and Glory Home for Funerals.

Anne Strainchamps (13:45):

And he spent decades trying to stop the epidemic of gun violence in his community. But he told Charles Monroe-Kane, that nothing prepared him for the pandemic. A quick word of warning, this conversation is frank and sometimes disturbing, truth often is.

Charles Monroe-Kane (14:02):

So of course it's 2020, and we have a very different and just off-putting and strange problem right now, right? We have the coronavirus, especially which is hitting the black humidity so hard. What's it look like on the ground with the coronavirus, for a mortician?

Tyrone Muhammad (14:20):

I say it's very sad. It's very sad in itself, because we weren't prepared for it. I think across America in itself, wasn't really prepared for it, particularly in the black community, because when it first started out, it was just like an urban myth for a few days, that black people don't catch it, it was only white people catching it and dying from it. It wasn't much known. And then an NBA player came out, then different people started coming out that were black. Then people started understanding that, "Hey, this thing could be real." But then they would start saying, "Oh, they're paid spokesmen. They're just paid celebrities. So that can't be real." Then it hit. And one day, March 23rd in our community, it went crazy.

Charles Monroe-Kane (15:00):

That really surprises me. You're actually naming a date, an actual day when coronavirus hit the black community. I mean, what happened that day?

Tyrone Muhammad (15:08):

Yes. I can remember, like I said, March 23rd, normal day, we walk into the funeral home. We're a very busy funeral home, many dead, we do a lot of calls. And then called in, somebody died in the house. And then I remember my colleague, she said, "Oh, I got one. I got one." And then, man, that day, March 23rd, all day we took in 30 people that died from the COVID-19. They was dropping everywhere in the houses, hospitals, people was calling. So we was frantic. We weren't prepared. Most companies do a fire drill or some type of emergency drill. In this case, we were not prepared that what came into our funeral home straight eight days. And we had 210 people in our funeral home, in eight days.

Charles Monroe-Kane (15:52):

I'm so sorry. That sounds terrible.

Tyrone Muhammad (15:55):

Yes. Yes. It was crazy. So we was out of our mind. We were staying late and we realized we couldn't catch up. That's when it started hitting us, we couldn't catch up. And people were starting to call more and more and more frantic. So now imagine our funeral home getting it. Every funeral home start getting it, from New York all the way into New Jersey. So now families are starting to search around trying to find funeral homes, to come get their loved one. Nobody was taking it. We were stuck. We were scared. We were stuck, and we weren't sure what to do. So funeral home down to me, I call it the house of horrors to this day, because what's going on right now inside the funeral homes is a disgrace. And not just ours, but in most of them that's going on right now, particularly in New York and New Jersey.

Charles Monroe-Kane (16:40):

Can I ask you a personal question?

Tyrone Muhammad (16:42):


Charles Monroe-Kane (16:44):

You're a mortician, right? You're also a human being.

Tyrone Muhammad (16:46):


Charles Monroe-Kane (16:47):

But you're a mortician. You touch the dead bodies, you see the pain. How do you stay strong during something like this?

Tyrone Muhammad (16:55):

Man. Up to this point I was doing very well. I mean, this is my passion, this is what I believe that I was born to do, because it's a gift. I mean, it's easy for me to make somebody that looks disfigured, to learn the art of restoration and making people look good. I'm used to that. I love helping people. But I'm in a sad and sunken place at this point in time. Why? Because like I just said, the funeral homes have become a house of horrors. And what I mean by that, not just mine and other funeral homes, we are seeing people literally turn into liquid maggots in our funeral homes. Because the fact of the matter is that, we have this situation is that the funeral homes are looking like the bad guys, because the hospitals want them out, and the cemeteries won't let them in. So we are stuck with people at our funeral home. We got at least 80 people who already had funerals since March 25th, that we're holding until June 1st.

Tyrone Muhammad (17:50):

Because the cemeteries won't open up their gates. So now what do we do? It's sad to see people riding right in front of us, because a lot of people are not being embalmed, they're going straight to direct cremation, or they're going to direct burials. And that type of situation, we don't have to embalm them. So now we got them in their caskets, we got them in their cremation trays, but now we have to store these human remains. So now we're walking through the funeral home with a death stench, it's seeking or reeking in our carpets, because we have literally 150 people. Outside of our prep room, they're laying on floors on wooden planks. We got them on stretchers. We had makeshift stands, and they're literally rotting because we can't bury these people. We can cremate these people that have passed on. And it's undignified to leave them there, and it's a health hazard to us, right?

Charles Monroe-Kane (18:42):


Tyrone Muhammad (18:42):

So 90% of them has coronavirus. And then not only that, the family can't even grieve properly, because they can't have funerals no more, according to Governor Murphy executive order.

Charles Monroe-Kane (18:52):

So you just can't have a funeral?

Tyrone Muhammad (18:54):


Charles Monroe-Kane (18:55):

Mom can't come or a kid can't... How do people grieve? How does the community grieve?

Tyrone Muhammad (19:00):

Right. That's what I'm saying, there's no more tearful goodbyes at this point, because this is the way it works. Right now there's executive order 108, according to Governor Murphy, he said that only 10 people could come to your service. We can't classify them as funerals, right? Mayor Baraka, the mayor of Northern New Jersey, he knocked it down from 10 to five, so you can only have five family members. So we had an incident about two weeks ago, where this woman had seven children. We was only allowed five of them in. So four of her children came, and one sister, the sister bumped one of the children, and they start fighting and the altercation outside, because we told them he can't come in and see his mother. That is disgusting, but at the same time, you've got five people that can only come into the funeral home.

Tyrone Muhammad (19:42):

But right down the street from the funeral home, you got 12 and 13 people in a liquor store. I can't rationalize that. You can have 13 people in a liquor store in the same... Supposed to be social distancing, but you can only have five people paying their goodbyes to a person that gave birth to you. I don't understand that.

Charles Monroe-Kane (20:00):

You're a mortician, so in many ways you're an expert on grief. What do you think it means for a community, when people can't grieve for their dead? What do you think the long-term effects of that be?

Tyrone Muhammad (20:11):

Now, think about these people got to live with the notion that they didn't get to see their mother. Now, the reason why I say that, let's just use the mother, because the mother is the most endearing person in our life. I mean, we love our fathers, but the mothers, they get top bidding. So you can't see your mother. Number one, now, we want to show you your mother, but she got COVID-19. Now, once that death certificate says, COVID-19, you can't see your mother if she's unembalmed. So if you want to do a direct service, but normally under any circumstances, we'll let you come see your mother. But due to the COVID-19, we don't let you, you got to see your mother through a pitcher. Now you can't touch mama. You can't kiss mom. So now we tell you, "Okay, mama's going to go to the crematorium cemetery a month from now."

Tyrone Muhammad (20:52):

So you riding back and forth in that cemetery, knowing your mother's still inside. Now, people that have some type of addiction, some type of weakness, what you think that's going to do. That's going to push them right over the edge. He's going to be one of those 12 and 13 in that liquor store, or that eight or nine, 10, standing on the street corner, copping some dope, because the fact that they're dealing with this type of situation, because they know that their mother died, they didn't get to see mom, touch mom. Now they know mom's still in this funeral home for another month. Man, listen, that's going to have an effect on them that we haven't seen yet.

Charles Monroe-Kane (21:20):

Yeah. Hey, I have one more question for you. And I fear it's going to come across as crass or privileged, but I really want to ask you. It seems that your community, the African-American community, is well rehearsed in grief. White America, for the first time ever I think, maybe is starting to grasp a collective pain, this time due to coronavirus. I don't think we're handling it very well. What do we need to know? What should we be doing about the pain we're in?

Tyrone Muhammad (21:46):

Oh, man. You know what? It goes to show you that your privilege, white American privileges can be revoked at any time, such as ours. Finally white America, I think they know our pain. White American know our pain, and we know what's going on in this country, but it's going to take the real people in the country, man, that's going to be able to speak out. You got to remove fear and speak out on truth. And I just love what's going on right now. People are binding, people are coming together. Nobody's looking at racism that much now. People are just afraid and they're just trying to save their live brother, particularly mom, grandma, just trying to keep everybody safe. So I love it, man, what's going on?

Charles Monroe-Kane (22:33):

I really respect your positivity, and I'm glad I got to speak to you today. Thank you.

Tyrone Muhammad (22:39):

You're welcome. It's always good to talk to you, and thank you, and be well.

Anne Strainchamps (22:48):

Tyrone Muhammad is the funeral director of Peace and Glory Home for Funerals in Newark, New Jersey. He was talking with Charles Monroe-Kane. And this might be a good time for a poem. Here's Nikki Giovanni.

Nikki Giovanni (23:12):

I'm reading [Untitled](For Margaret Danner). It's actually One Ounce of Truth Benefits Like a Ripple on the Pond. One ounce of truth benefits, like ripples on a pond. One ounce of truth benefits like a ripple on a pond. One ounce of tooth benefits like ripples on a pond. As things change, remember my smile. The old man said my time is getting near. The old man said my time is getting near. He looked at his dusty cracked boots to say, "Sister, my time is getting near. And when I'm gone, remember I smiled. When I'm gone. Remember I smiled. I'm glad my time is getting there." The baby cried wanting some milk. The baby cried needing some milk. The baby, he cried for wanting. His mother kissed him gently. When I came, they sang a song. When I was born, they sang a song. When I was saved, they sang a song. Remember, I smiled when I'm gone. Remember I smile when I'm gone. Sing a good song when I'm gone. We ain't got long to stay.

Anne Strainchamps (24:59):

The poet, Nikki Giovanni, reading One Ounce of Truth Benefits Like a Ripple on a Pond. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To the Best of Our Knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Does philosophy still matter in the age of COVID-19, does it have anything to offer in this weird life of quarantine, remote work, and a looming killer virus? Well, John Kaag believes philosophy matters more than ever right now. He's an academic who writes popular books about the kinds of questions you ask yourself at 4:00 in the morning. What's the meaning of my life? Do I have a purpose? Kaag has one go-to philosopher for the pandemic. Steve Paulson caught up with him to talk about his new book, Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life.

Steve Paulson (26:01):

This pandemic is so strange, so surreal. And my sense is that just a whole lot of people, including me, are unmoored right now. And I think one of the effects of that is, we're asking the big existential questions about, how do we try to make sense of all of this? How do we try to find some meaning in this strange world? Is that your sense as well?

John Kaag (26:27):

I think so, Steve. I mean, I think that when people are in crisis or when people are deeply unsettled, they tend to ask existential questions. So questions like, "Why am I here? Where did I come from? Is life worth living? How do I go on in a meaningful way?" And I think that times, like the one that we're in right now, give us a chance to ask these questions in a new way. That might be the silver lining to all of this.

Steve Paulson (26:54):

So what are some of those big questions that you are asking right now, personally for you?

John Kaag (26:59):

I think one of the things that William James, the 19th century American philosopher, William James, he asked the question, is life worth living? And these days, that's a question that many of us, cooped up at home or in self-imposed isolation, ask. And philosophers have made it their business to answer that question in all sorts of unique ways. Most of them in hidebound hard ways. Yes, life is worth living, because God made us this way, or because we're something special in the universe. But I think in times of hardship, these answers don't really hold that much weight.

Steve Paulson (27:39):

Yeah. Because some of the old questions, just with a straight religious answer, "Oh, because God intended it this way." That doesn't hold up for a lot of people these days.

John Kaag (27:48):

No, I think in our secular culture, we need a better answer. And I think William James gives it to us. He says, "Is life worth living?" He says, "Maybe, it depends on the liver." That's a quote. Maybe, it depends on the liver.

Steve Paulson (28:01):

Wow. That is tough love. I mean, maybe? Because just about everyone else would say, "Of course it's worth living." He's asking us to dig deep.

John Kaag (28:11):

He is. What I think is so brilliant about James' answer is this, that when you ask the question, is life worth living? And if you're on the brink of saying no sometimes, you don't want a straight yes. You want a maybe, it depends. And it depends on you. You don't have easy answers. James doesn't accept easy answers to this question.

Steve Paulson (28:33):

To bring this conversation back to the pandemic that we're living through right now. Do you think there are different questions that we're asking, given this weird existence that we're in at the moment?

John Kaag (28:45):

Absolutely. I think so. The question of what is meaningful work, and what is meaningful activity, that's one question that I think is pressing on us currently. Do I like myself in social isolation? Can I handle being with myself more than I usually am? The typical distractions that we have in life are no longer available to us. Do I like the household I'm in? Do I like the people that I'm currently surrounded in? What makes me anxious? What makes me scared?

Steve Paulson (29:16):

And you need to confront this head on in some ways. I mean, if you don't really like the people you're living with, you're stuck with them right now and you have to deal with it. You can't run away now.

John Kaag (29:26):

But to get back to philosophy, the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, says that philosophy is preparation for death. And I think that one of the things that this pandemic has forced us to face, is our own mortality. But what I think that this historical moment gives us, is the chance to ask, how can I live a more vibrant life before I go? Whether it's with coronavirus or old age, hopefully old age.

Steve Paulson (30:00):

Well, and I know these questions about mortality hit really close to home for you right now. Not because of the pandemic specifically. I mean, some of them because of that, but you just had bypass heart surgery a few weeks ago, right?

John Kaag (30:14):

I did. I'm 40 years old and I'm a runner. And I was running on the treadmill and I had a massive heart attack. And a month ago I had bypass surgery, which is not what I was expecting for my 41st year.

Steve Paulson (30:31):

Yeah. No kidding.

John Kaag (30:33):

But one thing that I've thought quite a bit about, is the way that philosophy can give us strength through times of hardship.

Steve Paulson (30:39):

I bet. So you've been talking about William James. We should just give a little thumbnail sketch of who this guy was. Now, he lived most of his life in the 19th century. Tell me just a bit about his background.

John Kaag (30:52):

Sure. So James was born in 1844 and he died in 1910. He lived a life of privilege. I mean, his brother was Henry James.

Steve Paulson (31:01):

Henry James, the famous novelist. Yes.

John Kaag (31:04):

They were two prodigies. And he said, curiously, he said, "Take the happiest man, the one most envied by the world. And in nine cases out of 10, his inner most consciousness is one of failure." Now James, through his twenties and thirties, struggled with very serious anxiety and depression. And you can understand his philosophy and his psychology as a response to this psychic turmoil.

Steve Paulson (31:30):

And I know that these questions really hit home for him personally, because from all outward appearances, he had this extraordinary successful life. A star professor at Harvard, admired, intellectual, came from an incredible family and a life of privilege. And yet he really struggled to find happiness and meaning. And he had tremendous doubts about that.

John Kaag (31:55):

And I think that during these times, especially when many people who maybe aren't familiar with depression are going through their first bouts, that James helps us to move from being sick sold, that's his phrase, to being healthy minded.

Steve Paulson (32:11):

What did he mean by that phrase, sick sold?

John Kaag (32:14):

It comes from the varieties of religious experience. He says that there are two types of people. The sick sold are those who are predisposed to pessimism. They see the world as something alien, foreign, and in many cases, antagonistic. The healthy minded, on the other hand, see the universe as personal, as well-fitted to them, and as, in a lot of ways, benevolent.

Steve Paulson (32:40):

Well, there's another thing that he said, I know as well, that sometimes it's healthy to be sick. Which is such a profound thing to say, such a counterintuitive thing to say. And there's a personal angle to that. And there's also a societal response to me, that really resonates at this particular moment.

John Kaag (33:01):

It is healthy to be sick, is an exact quote from Henry David Thoreau. And James would agree with Thoreau, that convalescence gives us the chance to think through life in new ways. I'm also thinking about the 19th century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who says, "I must be thankful for the sickest days of my life, for they have led me to become who I am."

Steve Paulson (33:25):

Well John, it's worth pointing out that you have not only written two books now about William James, you've also written a book about Nietzsche, who are pretty dark thinkers, in a lot of ways. Not totally, but they're looking for ways to help us find our way out of the abyss at times. But boy, talk about your touchstones. Why are you drawn to these particular thinkers?

John Kaag (33:52):

Well, just to lay the cards on the table, I'm sick sold. So I'm drawn to thinkers who might give a little bit of insight about how to deal with psychic turbulence. I also think that philosophers can provide what Arthur Schopenhauer, a 19th century thinker, would call companions in misery. When you feel so all alone, sometimes it's good to pick up a book and read about somebody else who feels all alone.

Steve Paulson (34:24):

So I want to come back to that idea of soul sickness, that you were talking about earlier, and that in some cases it's healthy to be sick. I'm wondering what that suggests to you for us now. Obviously no one wants anyone to get COVID 19. We're not talking about that, but we're talking about something else.

John Kaag (34:46):

So I think that what we could understand is that when we are sick, very sick, we have the ability to see what is important about life. As we approach death, or as we flirt with death, we have the ability to see very clearly what matters, because time is of the essence. And we can actually see that we want to talk to people in more careful ways. We want to reach out as best we can to loved ones. We want to do things before we go. And I think that that's a wake up call that oftentimes modern society, in our desperate attempt to remain healthy, often overlooks. Being sick allows us to slow down long enough sometimes, to actually see what matters.

Anne Strainchamps (35:47):

That's philosopher, John Kaag talking with Steve Paulson about his book, Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your life. There's been a run on pandemic literature lately. A lot of people have been rediscovering Albert Camus' classic novel, The Plague. The story of an epidemic sweeping a city in French Algeria. It's obviously pretty relevant to us today. But Steve thinks Albert Camus' first novel, The Stranger, speaks even more strongly to the search for meaning. It's the story of an alienated man who commits a senseless murder. Literary critic, Alice Kaplan, calls it the perfect black lives matter book. Let's see why? Here's the famous opening scene of The Stranger read by Camus himself.

Albert Camus (36:45):

[foreign language 00:36:45].

John Mark Poison (36:45):

Mother died today, or maybe yesterday, I can't be sure. The telegram from the home says, your mother passed away, funeral tomorrow, deep sympathy. Which leaves the matter doubtful. It could have been yesterday.

Steve Paulson (37:37):

Alice, how do you explain the enduring fascination with Camus' novel, The Stranger? Because it seems to be a book that never goes away. It stays with us generation after generation.

Alice Kaplan (37:49):

It keeps getting new bursts life. I suppose that it is the perfect book for adolescents to read, because it's about an alienated narrator. That absurd feeling of being 13, 14, 15, I think it works on every generation.

Steve Paulson (38:09):

And I confess, I was one of those. I think it was college for me, so I was probably 17 or 18. And not only The Stranger, but the companion book of philosophical essays Camus wrote at that time, The Myth of Sisyphus, which were designed to come out around the same time, had a huge influence on me. It felt like the world didn't make sense, all the received wisdom of what I was supposed to do with my life, that didn't make sense. And this novel expressed it.

Alice Kaplan (38:36):

I think about Camus with his tuberculosis diagnosis when he was 17. And really living with death at a very early age and becoming, really if you read his journals, he's so wise, he's mature beyond his years.

Steve Paulson (38:53):

So we need a little refresher here. Remind us what happens in The Stranger by Albert [inaudible 00:38:58].

Alice Kaplan (38:58):

Okay. So the main character's named Meursault in French, that word has two words in it. It has the word Mo Di and soul, leap. So I think of it as a leap into death. Meursault is just a regular office worker in Algiers. And as the book opens, he learns that his mother has died. He goes to the old people's home to her funeral. He returns to Algiers. Then he gets mixed up with a really unsavory character who makes him write a letter to get vengeance on his girlfriend, an Arab woman. The woman's brother gets really, really angry about this vengeance letter. There's a trip to the beach, and the brother is there. And Meursault ends up under the heat of the sun, worried that he's going to be attacked, firing five shots and killing the Arab. And then he's tried. The whole story is narrated by, presumably by Meursault on death row. So you wonder if he was actually executed or not. I mean, it's a very, very clever set up.

Steve Paulson (40:10):

And then there's also a trial scene where there's a lot of attention paid to Meursault never crying at his mother's funeral. It seems to show a lack of empathy.

Alice Kaplan (40:22):

So was Camus' gambit. He wanted to show the absurdity of the system of justice, that a man could be condemned on the basis of a character flaw, as opposed to what he really did. Camus also said that a European in those days would never have been executed for killing an Arab. So even that was absurd. I mean, the whole question of the era, that also has given this book incredible relevance. It's a perfect black lives matter book.

Steve Paulson (40:53):

Oh, really? Explain that.

Alice Kaplan (40:55):

Well, because it's about a stupid vigilante killing, in a colonial situation with a colonized oppressed minority. So you can read it through that angle as well.

Steve Paulson (41:07):

And the Arab who's killed is never named.

Alice Kaplan (41:10):

Exactly. So this has produced hundreds of pages of analysis. The Algerian writer Kamel Daoud has written a book called The Meursault Investigation, which is narrated by the brother of the Arab, because he wants to give him a name.

Steve Paulson (41:29):

And give him a whole life, give him subjective experience, because in Camus' telling, the Arab is just this anonymous other.

Alice Kaplan (41:35):

Exactly. So why did he do that? I mean, a lot of critics assume that, well, Camus must have been racist, because he didn't name his character. I think it was a literary technique to represent the dehumanization of the Arab in a colonial situation. Imagine if he had named the era, the book would have lost all of its shock and its power. Camus' not Meursault.

Steve Paulson (42:04):

You said earlier, that you think The Stranger is the perfect book for black lives matter. Can you explain that a little bit more?

Alice Kaplan (42:13):

This idea of somebody shooting with no particular motivation, no reason, maybe affected by the sun. It's not defensible, particularly. He thought he saw a knife in the other guy's hand. I mean, we have heard these stories again and again about these killings. And somehow Camus is able to distill the basics of every one of these stories, into a narrative. That's very, very painful to read.

Steve Paulson (42:50):

Because of course the dynamic in these shootings is, it's often the white policemen shooting the innocent black, let's say driver, who gets stopped and just-

Alice Kaplan (42:59):

Right. Stopped for being black.

Steve Paulson (43:01):

Stopped for being black. And then just instantaneously almost, there's some misunderstanding, there's clearly some-

Alice Kaplan (43:08):


Steve Paulson (43:09):

...fear, there's racist reaction, and someone ends up dead. So there's that whole-

Alice Kaplan (43:16):

And isn't that what happens in The Stranger?

Steve Paulson (43:17):

That's my question. Yeah. Now the other thing that's so striking about The Stranger, is that this character, Meursault, is a blank slate. Even though he's the narrator of the story, we don't actually really know what makes him tick, and he never justifies, never even tries to justify or defend what he did.

Alice Kaplan (43:39):

Maybe the sun made him do it.

Steve Paulson (43:39):

Yeah. Was that really an unusual way to tell a story?

Alice Kaplan (43:43):

I think that Camus' genius was taking a convention in literature, which is telling a story in the first person. Usually when we read something in the first person where the narrator says, "I..." We feel like we're getting into his interior, into his soul, into her state of mind, whereas Camus really denies us that understanding. So we can interpret until the cows come home, and we're really not ever able to say why he did it. Did the sun make him do it?

Steve Paulson (44:16):

That the sun, meaning there was this glint of sun that came up when he was on the beach, he was holding a gun and for whatever reason, it got in his eyes and he started shooting.

Alice Kaplan (44:24):

It's such a beautiful scene that Camus worked on a lot. It's so beautiful about the sun glinting off the knife. And when everything started to shake and move for him in that sun.

John Mark Poison (44:43):

I knew it was a fool thing to do, but I took that step, just one step forward. And then the Arab drew his knife and held it toward me with what the sunlight. A shaft of light shot upward from the steel. And I felt as if a long, thin blade transfixed my forehead. At the same moment, all the sweat that had accumulated in my eyebrows, splashed down on my eyelids, covering them with a warm film of moisture. Beneath the veil of brine and tears, my eyes were blinded. I was conscious only of the symbols of the sun clashing on my skull, and less distinctly at the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scaring my eyelashes and gouging into my eyeballs.

John Mark Poison (45:45):

Then everything began to reel before my eyes. The fiery gas came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end. And a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift. Every nerve in my body was a steel spring, and my grip closed on the revolver. The trigger gave. And the smooth underbelly of the butt jogged my palm. So with that crisp wood crack sound, it all began. I shook off my sweat and the clinging veil of light. I knew I'd shattered the balance of the day, the special scum of this beach on which I'd been happy. But I fired four shots more into the inner body, on which they left no visible trace. And each successive shot was another loud fateful rap on the door of my undoing.

Steve Paulson (46:57):

So why do you think this novel, The Stranger, continues to speak so powerfully to so many people, year after year. I mean, it was written about 75 years ago.

Alice Kaplan (47:05):

I mean, there's so many answers to your question. I think it's the impossibility of ever defining Meursault, ever understanding him. Understanding is withheld, so we rush to interpret. Every generation of critics has had a different reading. Because of that blankness, you can project anything onto it. Camus once said that Meursault's the only Christ we deserve. I mean, you can imagine the kind of debates there would have been about that statement. You know what it is? It's a book that ushers young people into serious philosophical thought. It's an initiation. Reading the book is an initiation. I would say it works a little differently in France than in the United States, where The Stranger has different connotations. But it's just-

Steve Paulson (47:52):

What does it mean in France?

Alice Kaplan (47:54):

I mean the other big piece, Camus had a very ambivalent feeling about the Algerian revolution. And he was not willing to support the liberation front at the revolutionary movement, because he thought they were using terrorist tactics. Whereas [Satre 00:48:12] was gung ho on supporting the revolution. People did not forgive Camus for that, for a really long time.

Steve Paulson (48:20):

We should talk some about Camus' background, because it's fascinating. We tend to think of him as a French writer, but he was an Algerian French man. I mean, he grew up in Algeria, which is a huge difference.

Alice Kaplan (48:30):

Which didn't exist as a country then, it was France.

Steve Paulson (48:32):

And grew up in real poverty. Wasn't his mother-

Alice Kaplan (48:35):

His mother was a cleaning lady, and she had a vocabulary of 400 words. She was pretty much deaf and dumb. She could barely speak.

Steve Paulson (48:44):

So it's astonishing that someone from this background would grow up to be a really famous writer and win the Nobel prize.

Alice Kaplan (48:50):


Steve Paulson (48:52):

Do you think The Stranger was Camus' great book?

Alice Kaplan (48:57):

I think he was scared of its powers. He was very upset when a high school kid killed his classmate. And among the reasons he mentioned having read The Stranger. It's very dangerous. I mean, the questions you're asking me are all about how we interpret it and whose sympathy do we get in reading that novel? I mean, are we supposed to be sympathetic to Meursault, and how dangerous is it to be sympathetic to somebody who does that? It's a dangerous novel.

John Mark Poison (49:37):

With death so near, mother must have felt like someone on the brink of freedom, ready to start life all over again. No one in the world had any right to weep for her. And I too felt ready to start life all over again. It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope. And gazing at the dark sky, spangled with its science and stars. For the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.

Anne Strainchamps (50:23):

That's the final scene from Albert Camus, The Stranger. Steve was talking with Alice Kaplan about her book, Looking for The Stranger. And thanks to John Mark Poison for the readings. That's it for this hour. To the Best of Our Knowledge comes to you from Madison, Wisconsin, and Wisconsin Public Radio. Our producers are Mark Rickers, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe-Kane, and Angela Batista. Our technical director is Joe Hartke, our executive producer is Steve Paulson and I'm Anne Strainchamps. Thanks for listening. Stay safe and be well.

Speaker 12 (51:06):


Last modified: 
September 29, 2021