“Hell is other people.” – Jean-Paul Sartre from No Exit/Huis Clos (1944)
Do you ever just stop a second and ask yourself, ‘why do I exist?’
Living is scary. Being is scary. Simply existing is scary. We are born, we live a life that varies in excitement but never truly reaches a satisfactory point of achievement, then we die. Feeling terrified, anxious, or overwhelmed yet? Welcome to the wonderful world of Existentialism.
Often enough I hear the phrase ‘having an existential crisis’ used pretty casually to describe not knowing or general minimal confusion. But actually, an existential crisis is something very precise described as ‘a sense of disorientation, confusion, or anxiety in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world’. I’ve talked about it in one of my posts but, as humans, we feel, and we emote a lot. Sometimes, our emotions are so strong that they prevent us from getting real with ourselves and with others, because when we do, we’re confronted by our total lack of control in our life and the possibility that life itself means nothing to anyone but ourselves personally. Pretty tragic really. When we exist truly and wholly, we become unsure of our purpose (although ‘purpose’ is a very wide topic that I might do an entire post about later on). Think about it. Our daily lives consist of trivialities; we focus on our food, the people around us, we try to be kind and loving (most of us) we try to remain happy and healthy. But the real question is why? Why do we even bother?
Søren Kierkegaard, considered to be the first existentialist philosopher, argues that it is our personal responsibility to give meaning to our existence. We shouldn’t rely on religion and society to tell how to live our lives and why we live how we live. In a way, being religious is almost like a life cheat. You can’t find true purpose on Earth so you cruise by as you live, unsure of why you even exist in the first place, and wait for God or Oprah or whoever to show you the ‘truest path’ afterlife. Society’s no better. In a capitalist world like ours (kinda starting to sound like a communist rant), we focus all our attention on meaningless things. On buying and eating and technology and over-achievement. All things that add nothing real to our existence, beyond materialistic tendencies, and only helps our existential purpose seem absurd. The idea of the absurd or irrational nature of existence only comes later – To Kierkegaard, existentialism isn’t about accepting that life is meaningless, but rather trying to make it meaningful by living authentically and finding purpose in what truly matters to us, beyond society and religion.
Now, perhaps you’ve been wondering about the relevance of the initial Sartre quote of this post and if you’re new to the world existentialism or of 20th century French philosophy in general, the quote might seem a little random. But actually, it makes a lot of sense. “Hell is other people”. If you’re anything like me and napping is your favourite hobby but the prospect of meeting new people is what most of your nightmares are made of, you might be tempted to take this phrase literally and accept that fact that people. just. suck. HOWEVER, please don’t, because that is in no way what Sartre meant (although the fact that Trump got elected, pets still get abandoned during the summer holidays and gay conversion therapy still exists does point towards people being awful). Still, “Hell is other people” is simply a very deep and very complicated analysis of the importance of others in giving our life meaning. We care about what people think and our social interactions are what define our existence. So, Sartre is right, hell IS other people, because other people have the power to either stop your existential grief through social approval, or, crush any possibility of having a meaningful life.
It’s not surprising that we don’t want to get real, that we’re afraid of existing purely, with no rhyme nor reason, because we’re not conditioned to think about our own meaning. Existentialism is accepting that without purpose we’re nothing, and that purpose is hella hard to achieve. Life is absurd, we exist for nothing and that’s it. We matter as single people but nothing else. Basically. I don’t blame us for choosing online shopping over constant existential questioning. However, it’s good to get real once in a while. To stop being afraid of who we are and why exist and to just live for the sake of living truly and solely. Purpose doesn’t have to mean achievement, but maybe just simple fulfillment.