If you've not read this phrase before, your initial reaction might be something between an uncontrolled burst of laughter and a significant sense of curiosity. Once the first reaction subsides, if your reaction is similar to mine, the profound truth of the phrase's message becomes inescapable as evidence of this truth begins flowing into your mind.
What makes hell other people? If other people are hell, what is heaven?
I also imagine you will acknowledge, however, that some of the greatest pleasures in your life have involved people outside of your self, perhaps in the form of service to those who appreciate and value what you have to offer. It's just those other people that seem to always screw things up!
Here are some of my own observations and evidence, followed by the original source, of "hell is other people:"
- Other people are not very bright but this does not stop them from assuming responsibilities, such as driving cars, running for public office, voting, managing investments, teaching your children, or presiding over the company for which you work -- all of which obviously have great potential impact on your life!
- You work hard for your clients and maintain an altruistic and ethical standard of conduct while other people attract business (and perhaps some of your clients) with a less-than-ethical standard of conduct.
- You consider yourself a valuable employee but you are employed by other people who decide to "downsize" in the face of recession and you lose your job!
- You have a great idea (i.e. to start your own business or to improve something at your place of employment) but other people don't seem to agree with the greatness of your idea. As a result, your idea fails, assuming it even launches, and you begin to question your own judgment, which erodes at your self-worth and reduces the chances of offering more ideas.
Given that "hell is other people," what is it that you believe "other people" in this phrase really represent?
The grip that other people have on our lives might derive from our deepest desire -- self-actualization. Often, and to our detriment, our self-actualization is dependent upon the approval (or what we perceive to be approval) of others. Our actions, therefore, are often a reflection of what we believe other people expect. This also extends to our desire to control our own destiny and to find the things (money, material wealth, social status) that we perceive will provide this control -- this validation.
The original proclamation that "hell is other people" came from Jean-Paul Sartre, the 20th century French existentialist philosopher and playwright," and his play No Exit: The three main characters in the play arrive in hell, a hotel, and discover that their fate is to spend eternity together in one small room. The characters further discover that hell is not torture by fire and brimstone but torture by other people and the perception that there is no escape.
Why is hell other people? Because, as Sartre has explained, "…when we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves, … we use the knowledge of us which other people already have." In other words, if we are not recognized or if our individual pursuits and dreams are not validated by other people's approval, we often feel that our existence has less meaning or even that it is worthless.
Personally, I like the interpretation, and what Sartre himself has implied, that other people represent a purgatory -- a place that can be heaven or hell, depending upon one's own perceptions...
If hell is other people, then it is because you have made it so -- it is because you have allowed other people to shape your reality. Your self-actualization, in this hell, is completely dependent upon the approval of others.
You play a kind of game -- a game of illusion -- with other people. You put forth an image that you think other people want to see which is often an illusion in itself: Your resume, your web site, your Facebook page, your clothes, your car, your house, your choice of words, your vacation destination and your presentations to prospective clients all present an illusion to meet the expectations and validations of other people.
As with anything, there is a healthy balance to be found.
The balance to be found is that, to co-exist with other people, which is inescapable, you must play this game of illusion to some degree; but you must also remain aware that this game is in fact an illusion: The illusion you put forth must not be far from the truth or you will lose touch with your own reality and lose your self along the way; you must realize that others are playing this game of illusion and the perception of "winning" or "losing" must remain only in the minds of other people -- not in yours; and most importantly, do not become other people -- the people that define their existence -- their heaven or hell -- by the perceived expectations and validations of other people.
Hell, therefore, is not other people -- hell is being other people. Heaven is being yourself...