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And the emptiness becomes a prison

In his play, No Exit, Sartre wrote the 'Hell is other people'. For the past several years of my life, I've tried to embrace this truism. The phrase is often misunderstood, and Sartre himself addressed it, but I always had an instinctive understanding of exactly what he meant.

…“hell is other people” has always been misunderstood. It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned, that they are invariably hellish relations. But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then that other person can only be hell. Why? Because…when we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves, … we use the knowledge of us which other people already have. We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves. Into whatever I say about myself someone else’s judgment always enters. Into whatever I feel within myself someone else’s judgment enters. … But that does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us. -Sartre

All of us see ourselves reflected in the eyes of other people. No matter how much we might try to tell ourselves we don't care what others think, it bleeds into our perceptions like poison. It's like how I've always said that 'Hope kills'. Without hope, you would never feel the shattering pain of disappointment, of failure, of regret and all of that reflected and magnified in the eyes of those around you. The only way to protect yourself is to try to wall yourself away from others. Build internal walls of iron and stone and try to keep out the pain. As the Buddhists say, desire brings suffering. Tell yourself that you desire nothing, need nothing, and maybe in that emptiness you can find an escape from pain.

Of course, you may find surcease there in the darkness. The darkness is cool and empty, but eventually you also find loneliness there. Sartre may be absolutely right that hell is other people and that we find our greatest pain in the eyes of others, but the lack of them also brings its own pain. So which pain is the greater? In the endless tug of war before competing daggers, each which draws blood and drives you to the other side, only to be cut again.

For years, I really thought that I had come to terms with things. I had built my walls, strong as I could make them, mortared with indifference and surrounded by caustic wires and brambles. Wanting nothing, I risked nothing, and was content to drift on the current. Maybe it's just a sign that I'm getting soft in my old age but I find the pretense, which I didn't even fully recognize was a pretense, harder to maintain. I look around at the few friends who have stuck with me over the years and I can't help but I never really appreciated them as I should have and how much I really value them. This came to a forefront this time in Chicago and at gencon where I made an effort to try to convey in some small measure just what some of these people mean to me. We're all reaching that age where people start to fall away for one reason or another and no one knows when that parting will come. You can't help but come to realize just how rare it is to have people willing to stick by you, faults and all. That isn't to say that there isn't pain and risk involved. Hell is other people after all. But when you're facing competing hell's and there's no easy way out, sometimes all you have is a leap of faith.

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
jirel
Aug. 25th, 2011 02:45 pm (UTC)
Yeah, the one thing about having (or not having) a significant other is that you have the feeling that if you had one there would be someone around you most of the time. And that by sharing their friends with them, you can increase the number of friends that you have and the number of people around you. And sometimes you just like to think that they would be there when times are bad to at least share your pain.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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