As a student in the 10th grade, I first became familiar with Jean-Paul Sartre , as I had to do a dramatic reading of the role of one of the three protagonists of his play “No Exit” (being the only male male lead, of course, some newspaper reporter of some kind who had not lived a particularly good life because of his own cowardice). The moment of grim realization within the play is when the three characters, who have been frustrating and annoying each other in endless circles, realize that “hell is other people,” at least in the eyes of the existentialist Sartre. Today I would like to explore why that is the case in the context of my own life, given my own extensive and unpleasant experience with this phenomenon.
In many ways, I have lived a rather lonely life. Part of that loneliness is somewhat self-inflicted, given my awkwardness when it comes to affection and intimacy, the fact that I am very sensitive to being treated with a different and less friendly standard than those I see around me, and the fact that trust is not an easy thing for me. Part of it is that there is a sort of vicious circle that comes from being an outsider, as being an outsider makes it easier for others to justify to themselves unfriendliness which tends to increase vulnerability, which increases one’s chances of being ridiculed, which tends to be justified in the minds of those who ridicule and slander by thinking poorly of those they insult.
How does one reverse this vicious cycle? Quite honestly, the only way to think well of those who hate us and say all kinds of evil about us falsely is to treat them well, to be kind and friendly even despite their hostility. Our character is not defined by the lies of others (though our reputation may very well be), but rather by the way we act towards others. If love is in our hearts, we will act with love towards others. If we are cruel and vicious to others, it is not because others deserve it but rather because such evil is within our own hearts. We act towards others out of our own resources, because we have chosen to do so (whether consciously and deliberately or not), not in proportion to what others have done or in justice and mercy, as we are supposed to act towards others. Therefore, if we wish to feel better about someone, we must act better towards them. So long as we act harshly and in an unfriendly manner to someone, we will never lack fallacious rationalizations to assuage our own guilty consciences and lead us away from God and His way of love and truth.
How do we keep from making life more difficult for others? For one, we need to make sure that our perceptions of others are not being allowed to fester in darkness but are rather being checked by accurate gathering of facts and an openness to new information as well as giving the benefit of the doubt. All too often we act based on grave misunderstandings of other people, something I have done quite a bit and had happen to me very often as well. It is a humbling thing to eat crow because one has thought and acted on something that turned out not to be true. It is especially humbling to ask forgiveness of someone that one has thought to be immensely wicked and did not turn out to be so (in my life I have had few people who thought me particularly evil have enough character and moral integrity to apologize to me and repent of their evil thoughts, but I’m always hopeful that it will happen in the future). Perhaps we may see it soon enough to help make life a little bit less hellish.