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Is Hell Really Other People?

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they cannot tell good from evil.

But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.

Marcus Aurelius
(Meditations: 2.1: Part 1)

During a theatrical performance, three audience members who are strangers were seated together. John felt that Jim was fidgeting ‘too much.’ Thus John, under his breath, grumbled about Jim, perhaps with the hope that Jim hears it and stops. Nearby, Jack hears the grumbling too, and suggests to John later, that he should be more mindfully sensitive towards others, since the fidgeting was ‘not too much’, in his opinion. John however, felt that the movements are excessive, harassing in nature. He also feels that there are many mentally ill people in public recently, even close to home.

There is indeed a steep increase of mental distress worldwide. According to the World Health Organisation, ‘In 2020, the number of people living with anxiety and depressive disorders rose significantly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Initial estimates show a 26% and 28% increase respectively… in just one year. While effective prevention and treatment options exist, most people with mental disorders do not have access to effective care. Many people also experience stigma, discrimination and violations of human rights.’ This is an ongoing silent pandemic.

Knowing this, we should expect to encounter more of the mentally unwell, but with more compassion, empathy and patience, for they might not have proper treatment. Mere ranting is not only unkind, it will not work in bettering the situation. This does not mean that Jim was surely medically unwell though. If we feel overwhelmed by many of the ‘unreasonable’ around us, is there something wrong with the world at large, us or both? May we reflect objectively to know, and if unsure that we are objective, we should be open to professional counselling or talk therapy.

Ironically, those who need help the most tend to think they do not need it at all. This is how the world continues to have more of the ‘unreasonable’, perhaps with ourselves becoming the ‘unreasonable’ stubbornly refusing help too. It is also possible for those with mental illnesses to project their disturbing misperceptions upon others. Tragically, these are not always misperceptions, when pots accurately calling kettles black at times. If Jim is not responsive after polite request to be more still, John could have just changed his seat?

As Sartre wrote, ‘Hell is other people.’ This means that others seem ‘hellish’ to us if we relate to them negatively, as if with others giving ‘hell’ to us. But the root of ‘hell’ is in us, and we choose to grow it or not, to bear the bitter fruit of suffering or not. How do we know the root is not in ‘other people’? If John felt that Jim was ‘too much’, while Jack felt that Jim was ‘not too much’, how can the root of John’s hell be in Jim? Likewise for Jim, with whatever cause he was fidgeting restlessly, the root of hell was in himself, not somebody else. We karmically create and sustain our own hells.

In the Buddhist perspective, whether diagnosed medically or not, we are all already mentally unwell to various extents, afflicted by the three poisons of attachment, aversion and delusion. For one another, may we transform them with the three antidotes. The cure for attachment is more generosity, the cure for aversion is more compassion, and the cure for delusion is more wisdom. More aversion towards who we already have aversion to does not rid the aversion, fortifying this habitually instead, with it further taking root within. Why keep giving yourself and others ‘hell’?

And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him.

We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower.

To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.

Marcus Aurelius
(Meditations: 2.1: Part 2)
Translated by Martin Hammond

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