It’s How We Are
This weekend something happened that profoundly altered the way I think about the world and our relationships with other people. The event itself, which I will not go into great detail about, involved a friend of mine who needed help, who just needed a friend. We have all been there — bad day and we just need someone to talk to — and we all know what it feels like to be in a situation where friends seem to be the only thing going right in the world. It astonished me how something this simple has such deep and philosophical roots; it goes so much deeper than simply being with a friend.
Existentialism is a school of thought centered around the idea that existence precedes essence. Our existence is meaningless and our lives, at the beginning, are a blank slate on which we can build ourselves, create ourselves, and give our own meaning to our lives. It is rather simple, nothing is planned out ahead of time, not by God or any divine being and there is no providence that influences or changes the course our life takes. The only thing that matters is us, what we choose, and how we choose to act. This school of thought was pioneered first by Friedrich Nietzsche (who boldly proclaimed “God is dead.”), then Martin Heidegger, and lastly Jean-Paul Sartre. In this blog post, I am going to take particular issue with Sartre and how he views humans in their natural state.
Born and raised in France, Jean-Paul Sartre became the modern face of existentialism throughout the 20th century. His work includes such foundational materials as “Being and Nothingness” and “Nausea.” However, the most famous and well known play he wrote was “No Exit,” and within this play is, arguably, the most famous line he penned: “Hell is other people.” According to him, human beings were naturally isolated beings, we do not posses any special inclination towards community or towards other people. In our natural state, when we are doing nothing else, we prefer to be alone. Simply put, human beings will always choose loneliness because being around other people is sheer hell — as he wrote in “No Exit.”
When I first began reading Sartre (and Marx), I gave this notion a lot of attention. As I read the classic texts written by Sartre, I could feel that he was going somewhere, I could feel myself choosing isolation over being with other people because I believed that is how we naturally are. However, that isn’t how we are.
The cruel reality of life is that the world stinks. It really does. War, poverty, oppression, and injustice are everywhere. People have become greedy, self-obsessed, and egotistical animals that seek to maximize their material possessions, even at the expense of everyone and everything else. We hear it constantly from older people who were born in the middle of the 20th century, “Back in my day we……” Yes, things have profoundly changed from decades ago and they have changed in the direction that makes the world a more hostile and dark place to live.
In this dark world, why would we choose to be alone? How could we choose to be alone? The simple answer? We don’t. It’s not how we are. We, as humans don’t choose to be alone, we choose to be with other people and experience the generous warmth of other people. We choose to have friends. We choose to be with family. We choose to wave and smile and talk to passersby on the street. That is who we are, we are naturally and inherently inclined to seek out the love from our fellow humans. We have all been there, most recently, for me, was this weekend when my friend needed help. In one way or another, we have all felt how awesome it is to have people in our lives who care and they are the people who make the journey through this life so much gentler. We cannot hope to emerge from this life unhurt unless we seek out people and build friendships with them.
That is how we are. We need people in our lives and we need the warmth and love they bring us. Sartre was wrong, hell isn’t other people; isolation is.