Jean-Paul Sartre concisely articulated the experience we probably all have at some point: hell is other people.
Is there anyone who hasn’t felt the free fall of grief, the thud of rejection, the tension of conflict, the loneliness of indifference, the bristling of being unjustly criticised or the stabs of irritation?
And that’s just the common and garden variety of hell.
Plenty of people have far more extreme and traumatic experiences from childhood right through to present day.
It’s estimated that 1 in 5 adults in Britain (8.5 million people) have experienced some form of physical, emotional or sexual abuse before the age of 16. Twenty per cent of students experience bullying at school. Every nine seconds in the US a woman will be abused or beaten and every day more than 3 women are murdered by their partner.
Hell is other people.
Yet our design is social.
There is a lizard species in Madagascar, the Labord’s chameleon, that is born and grows without seeing any adults of its species at all. The adults lay all their eggs before the winter months come in. In the eight months before the eggs hatch and the summer rains fall, all the adult lizards will have completed their short life span and died.
It is very different of course for the human baby. The necessity for parental (or other adult) care in the child’s physical, emotional, intellectual and social development goes far beyond what is required in any other species. Which makes sense of course because our society is far more complex and there is so much more to learn.
An abandoned baby will not survive alone. And a baby (as shown by the Romanian orphanage studies) raised with no or minimal social responsiveness will have severely impaired cognitive function, motor development and language.
It is not just during childhood, of course, that other people are critical to our well-being.
The only place in the world that men live as long as women is in Sardinia, an island off the coast of Italy. There are six times as many centenarians on the island as there are on mainland Italy just 200 miles away and ten times more as there are in North America.
Psychologist, Susan Pinker showed that although the sunny, active lifestyle and Mediterranean diet were contributing to their overall health, the outstanding factor making the biggest difference was the strength, closeness and frequency of their social connections.
Pinker has shown that close personal relationships and face to face interactions have more influence over a person’s longevity than anything else – even more so than giving up smoking or alcohol.
What is clear is that we are a highly social animal. That closeness and interaction with others is as vital to our thriving as water and nourishment. And it is also clear that it is in interactions with others that we can suffer the most.
What can we do about this? How can we live in a way in which our relationships are nourishing, supportive, close and contribute to our thriving?
Well, we would do well to start with Sartre’s explanation of his infamous quote:
“Hell is other people” has always been misunderstood” he said in an interview. “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.”
And this is our portal to freedom, our portal to love indeed. As babies we are helplessly dependent, we are learning all the time, from others about what we are, what reality is, how we have to behave. (“Into whatever I say about myself someone else’s judgment always enters.”)
As adults, something else can happen. There is the possibility to unlearn. To move beyond so that the experiences of the past do not continually replicate in an on-going hell of others. To realise something far deeper about ourselves and what we are so that we no longer “judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves”.
And in this way, all relationships, all interactions, from the person we wake up with every day to the shop keeper we encounter once and never again, are the gift. Any hell experienced is revelatory. It is showing where we are dependent and helpless, not physically and literally as we were as babies, but mentally and emotionally. Held captive in a version of ourselves that is not true. Constrained in an experience of self and other by learning and conditioning, beliefs and assumptions, memories and associations.
The hell of others, the belief that the other is anything but the mirror of the unconsciously learned self idea, is the route to freedom. However much the instinct is to fight, flee or freeze, the stress and discomfort suggests another way.
Suffering invites us to just notice, to be present to the physical sensations, to witness the hell of dependency and resentment that the mind is creating, to notice that the constraints are not physical but believed. This brings the attention to reality. It makes us sane.
And in that sanity, we understand what we are:
the infinite capacity to unlearn and to come back into the world fresh and curious,
life intelligence in action continually responding to whatever arises,
the space of love and openness into which all others appear
And an authentic clear voice that speaks, knowing it is speaking to itself, its truth.