Heaven & Hell

I snapped the above photo from the parking lot of my gym.

I always thought this sign was placed at an odd location. I’m not sure how anyone could mistake raised curbs and a sidewalk as an exit, but I guess some have made this mistake, necessitating the sign. 

Every time I see it I think of Jean-Paul Sartre’s short play, No Exit. Since I go to the gym every day, I think of the play every day.

I don’t pretend to be a philosopher or an expert on Existentialism, though I have read some of it throughout the years. I have some friends who could discuss philosophy much more coherently than I could.

With that said, when I first read No Exit in college I was struck by Sartre’s depiction of hell. In the popular imagination, hell is often shown as a place with fire and brimstone and plenty of weeping and gnashing of teeth. In other words, a physical torture chamber.

Since Sartre was an atheist, the play is meant to be an allegory for his philosophy, and not meant to be a dissertation on religious conceptions of hell; still his description of hell as being trapped in an antiseptic room with other people for all eternity was jarring at first.

The conclusion “Hell is other people,” while in a sense absurd to those with traditional notions of hell in mind, to me is a source of hope for us living this life.

I will add to the famous quote so that it reads “Hell is other people if we allow it.”

We, ultimately, have the freedom to decide whether we will permit situations we are in, or people we deal with, to become a personal hell or not. We have the freedom to determine whether we will allow other people to define us, or if we will use our freedom here on Earth to define ourselves, despite opposition and derision that is sure to come.

When we are overly concerned with what other people think about us, we create the conditions for a sort of hell on Earth. It forces us to constantly be on guard and shift our behaviors to meet the expectations of others. If we use our freedom that way, in a sense abdicating it to others and sacrificing our own values to others, hell sure can be other people.

But, if we use our freedom to forge our own paths and take responsibility for our own lives, no person and no situation has the power to represent a hell on Earth for us.

In the play, Garcin, Inez, and Estelle turned their situation into hell by how they reacted and responded to each other. Nothing inherent in the room made it hell, except themselves.

Some of us are living in a similar state of hell as the main characters. We are imprisoned by the expectations of others and sacrifice our hopes and dreams due to the fear of how others will react to us.  

To me, this short play is positive tale. It urges us to express our individuality and not allow others to define our lives for us. In so doing, we will find our own meaning and purpose.  

Adam Lane Smith recently released a course that I completed that provides tools to help define our own purpose for life. I highly recommend Living With Purpose if you have never done a similar exercise before. Don’t create a hell on earth for yourself by letting other people define you or your purpose.