Heaven or Hell?

The existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre famously said ‘Hell is other people’. The quote originated in his play No Exit with the scenario of hell being trapped for eternity in a room with two other people.

This quote came up in a recent Zoom conversation I had with an old friend. He immediately responded with the opposing claim that ‘Heaven is other people”. My friend is an urbanite who lives in a fashionable part of a big city and spends his days in restaurants, theatres and galleries. Although I used to enjoy that kind of lifestyle years ago I’ve since voted with my feet and moved to a village in a remote part of the UK. Here I prefer the company of wild birds and animals to people and I limit my social interactions to mostly online. I have turned into a recluse for sure!

So I kept thinking about why some of us seem to need people more than others. Which category do you fall into? Are other people hell or heaven to you or a bit of both? Is it simply a matter of introversion or extroversion or the conditions of our early childhood?

I was an only child and spent time in an isolation hospital at the age of three. So being alone feels safe to me. My happiest memories revolve around nature and my wonderful animals. Not people. My parents were unhappy dysfunctional people and I have survived two marriages to men who turned out to be abusers. This is a common experience. We often talk of humans being a social animal but just look at how many notable people became happy recluses in the later part of their lives:-

Brigitte Bardot, Carl Jung, Marlon Brando, Greta Garbo, Michael Jackson, Caryll Churchill, Paul Cezanne, Emily Dickinson, Arthur Scargill, Brian Wilson, Marcel Proust, Yves Saint Laurent, Harper Lee, Michelangelo, Stanley Kubrick…

So who are you? Do you prefer a mad social whirl or talking to trees?

Photo by the author

4 thoughts on “Heaven or Hell?

  1. In his mystical work “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, poet, philosopher and artist William Blake defined heaven as equating to reason and hell to energy or activity and argued that a balance – the “marriage” – between the two was necessary for the functioning of the world and of humanity. It’s important to recognise that Blake didn’t necessarily see hell as bad and heaven as good. Central to Blake’s ideas was that without what he called “contraries” – opposites or differences – progress of any sort is impossible: it is only by the coming together or collision of differences that motion is possible. This implies that there has to be others to collide with or come together with, something that was made explicit by the earlier metaphysical poet John Donne in his famous line “No man is an island”. Both biology and social sciences such as sociology, economics and anthropology have demonstrated the truth of Donne’s words. Homo Sapiens is a social animal.

    Yet at the same time we as a species also crave privacy and spaces where we can be on our own or with just one or two other people. Even the most social of us appreciate being able, at the end of the day, to lock our doors to keep the rest of the world out. But equally, even the most private of us, the most introverted need others. In medieval times many people chose to live as hermits in order to dedicate their lives to building a spiritual relationship with their God. Some of these hermits voluntarily chose to be locked in tiny cells that would on their deaths be their graves. Yet even in these extreme examples of cutting oneself off from the world, others were needed, if only to provide the hermits with enough food and water to survive. In this context it is worth remembering that in prisons, solitary confinement is often used as a punishment.

    I was brought up in a city. As an adult, I have lived in cities, small towns and remote rural locations, finding beauty and inspiration in all these locations, even when living in a deprived inner city area with a high crime rate and high unemployment. As I got older, cities became less attractive and for 16 years my husband and I lived in the tiny remote village of Durness, the most north-westerly settlement on the UK mainland. Living in such a location highlighted the need for others: in a village of 300 people that is 80 miles away from the nearest town and 100 miles from the nearest city, you soon learn the importance of community, of people helping each other. It also has to be said that in such small communities, privacy is more difficult than in towns and cities. We now live in the small town of Wick: a choice made when we closed our business and for health and age reasons needed to be nearer to facilities.

    We all need other people: none of us can be totally self-sufficient – even those who grow all their own food will from time to time need to buy gardening or agricultural equipment and are likely at some stage to need doctors or plumbers or electricians. Even someone who lives off-grid will still need others – perhaps a doctor or the supplier of wood for their fires or suppliers of candles or a water supply. Even if none of this is needed, the modern day hermit would still need other people to behave in ways that protect the hermit’s environment: when it comes to climate change not even the most remote hermit can be an island.

    Other people can be both heaven and hell, depending on circumstances.

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    1. Very interesting to hear your thoughts Kevin. I agree with Blake about the need for contrast to create meaning and change. He was ahead of his time with his ideas and pre-empted Karl Marx. In a technological society such as ours with a complex division of labour it is impossible to survive without others. My question relates more to the emotional aspect of needing other people. It seems some people choose to withdraw from the hustle of socialising as they get older. More disillusioned or cynical perhaps? Or just plain tired? I was a romantic idealist as a young woman who had hope for the human race. I’m sad to say that after being on the planet for more than half a century I now think humans are a hierarchical destructive species. Our innate need for domination leads to selfishness, greed and the exploitation of others and the natural world. Of course there are many good people out there too but now I’m older I am more selective about who I spend my precious time with.


  2. I suspect you know my answer. I will talk to plants and any kind of wildlife but if I hear tires crunch in the driveway, I flee! I also spent quite a bit of time alone when I was young and then was sent to boarding school where I was forced to share a room or dorm. I did not like it!

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