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Inside looking out: ‘Hell is other people’

Published November 03. 2018 07:00AM

Jean-Paul Sartre, a forerunner of the theory of existentialism, made this statement that I have used as my title. He believed that this life we live is fraught by depression and anxiety because we are given the free will to have to make our own choices that keep us in a constant state of emotional insecurity because “other people” stand in the way of any chance at happiness and peace of mind.

Sartre wrote a novel he called, “No Exit.” Four people, who absolutely hate each other, die at random times and are sent to be together in Hell for a variety of wrong doings. All four find that their Hell is a locked room they can never escape, but the real suffering happens when they realize they are forced to “live” with each other forever in death.

Just for fun, (really, just for fun), imagine this happening to you. Think of three people whom you had been close with through circumstances or through family blood, but haven’t seen in some time after a huge falling out. Now picture yourself stuck inside a room with them forever. What if you were a man sentenced to spend eternity with your three ex wives!

I suppose you would figure out a way to get along just so you could exist with peace of mind. Well, maybe not?

That begs the question, why don’t we make peace with people we parted or ways with while we are still alive? I know a woman who hasn’t spoken to her mother in 20 years. I have a niece who hasn’t been in touch with her only brother in over a decade. Someone had a falling out with her favorite uncle and the grudge has gone on for five years. Another woman just ended a 35-year-long friendship. “We’re done,” she said. “We’ll never speak to each other again.”

You can say your life is better off without certain people in it, but when you’re talking about family and friends you had once loved, you can carry the emotional scars for a long timer as you move on without them.

If what had been a wonderful relationship turned abusive or toxic might be something you should give up. In many cases, however, an issue that caused the breakup can be seen now as not worth the permanent damage that was done. The old saying still holds merit. If there’s a will, there’s a way to bring it back.

As our pursuit of happiness continues toward unknown destinations, we throw people we once loved in the trash with the rest of the garbage, keeping only those who benefit our well- being. Yet there can remain an emptiness in our hearts and only the people we threw away can fill the void.

Peace of mind can come with forgiveness followed by healing, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, ”For every minute you remain angry, you give up sixty seconds of peace of mind.” Think about the number of hours we have wasted in anger at others.

Renowned psychiatrist Gerald Jampolsky said, “I can have peace of mind only when I forgive rather than judge.”

Life when I was younger was filled with some great times, but the truth is youth is clouded with turmoil and anxiety brought about by an absence of understanding due to lack of experience. Is it fair to say that no one under 30 can acquire peace of mind?

With age comes wisdom, they say. With wisdom comes peace of mind. English actress, Cherie Lunghi said, “I think it’s nice to age gracefully. OK, you lose the youth, a certain stamina and dewy glow, but what you gain on the inside as a human being is wonderful: the wisdom, the acceptance, and the peace of mind. It’s a fair exchange.”

As much as I want to disagree with Sartre, I believe we do lose our chance at spiritual balance with other people, but we shouldn’t blame them. To bring peace within ourselves, perhaps we should make treaties with those we used to care about.

Your kitchen table could be a good place to call a meeting of the bearers of long-term resentments. A man I knew called his two estranged adult sons to his table to fix what had been broken for several years. He acted as a mediator. The meeting began with angry and profanity laced verbal exchanges between his sons. Their exhaustive hostility then changed to tears after their father reminded them of the days of their youth when they had been best friends. After an hour of resolution, a handshake and a hug sealed their peace treaty and now they are best buddies again.

My friend lived by this rule. “Come to my kitchen table to make peace with me. Don’t wait until my funeral and try to do it there.”

Rich Strack can be reached at

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