In one of his plays, our existentialist friend Jean-Paul Sartre wrote “Hell is other people.” Just for clarification, he didn’t mean that human beings suck and we should be ashamed of being one of them. He, and others of this school of thought just took notice of the fact that we’re kind of stuck with one another, responsible for one another, and at the same time, we’re constantly watching each other, judging and taking note of one other. Long story short: this self-other business is complicated.
Less than a week into COVID19 seclusion, this particular self is missing all those others. I’m an extrovert, a chatterbox, a hugger, a student of human nature, and most definitely not a home body. I love visiting crowded, stinky, noisy cities and diving into a mob. I thrive on sharing a good meal, chatting about big ideas, blaring music and singing off key together. Yeah, I’m connected online, and I’m most grateful for that, but it’s just not the same. There’s only so much that I can suppress with compulsive baking and folding laundry, you know?
I have faith that we’ll eventually crawl out of our hobbit holes and back into the sun, and life will go on. Maybe it won’t quite be life as we knew it, but still…
Being removed from others, at least in an immediate, physical sense, has got me thinking about “otherness” in general. Human beings seem to have this habit of sorting people into “me”, “us”, “them” and “those guys waaaaaay over there”. We’ve gotten a little too comfortable with distance (both actual and theoretical), and that’s part of what’s gotten us into this mess in the first place. Stuff like this is supposed to happen to others, not to us. Until it happens to us.
To this virus, this microbe with a raging case of wanderlust, we aren’t others. It doesn’t see this person, or that person. There is no “us vs. them” to a bug like this. We’re all just a free ride and a meal ticket. Pandemics don’t give a tinker’s fart about existentialist philosophy.
Ironically, being separated from most humans, unable to shake hands, or embrace, or even pass around a plate of cookies, I am feeling much less like an “other” than before. The phone ringing is no longer a pain in the neck, it’s an “OOOOh, I wonder who that could be?” I’ve been welling up while watching videos of the quarantined singing to each other from balconies, of toddlers doing traditional healing dances. I’m noticing every hopeful soul out for a walk with their dog, every kid cautiously orbiting their house on roller blades. I’m wilting at the thought of the elderly being alone and woefully under-engaged. Absence is making my heart grow fonder.
I’m also more sensitive to those who think that precautions don’t apply to them, who insist on doing whatever they want, who are stubbornly clinging to their “otherness”. This separation thing is a hard habit to break. We like to feel special, like individuals, even when we need each other. And sometimes when our specialness is questioned, and we’re called to rejoin the herd…well, we do things like hoard toilet paper.
What I’ve been reminded of these past couple of weeks is just what Sartre floated out there: we aren’t on our own. For better or for worse, we’re tethered to one another. What we do, even the little stuff, wiggles its way through so many other lives. This makes me feel like a very small jellybean in a very large jar, but it also reinforces that even one jellybean matters. Right now there are seven and a half billion jelly beans squished together, and most of us are trying not to tip the jar.
It’s not that I don’t want to matter. I’m still me, and I still like being unique. I just want all of us to matter. If there is a silver lining to this situation, it’s that we have an opportunity to reevaluate and reset when the dust settles (and it will). Can we see our communities in a different light? Can we have more support for our education system? Can we have an economy that values our togetherness more than our separation? Can we elect leaders who can put “otherness” on the back burner? Can we knock down dividing walls between genders and races? Can we start valuing arts, social sciences, the humanities, and other pursuits that seek to explore our connections? Can we extend our newfound appreciation of non-otherness to non-human selves as well?
Besides their highlighting of this self-other tension, existentialists were also very keen to talk about responsibility. Sartre and his contemporaries insisted that every free choice we make serves as an example of what a human being should be. We should all be behaving as if all the other “others” out there are watching, because they kind of are, and not always in a bad way. In the weeks to come, I hope we take this to heart, and continue to rise to the occasion.
Stay safe, happy and healthy, everyone.