Hell is Other People?

I am a community junkie. I love people. But, at times, I hate people and can be very judgmental. I want to be in community—true community—friends, honesty, fun fellowship. I bounce between Sartre’s “hell is other people,” Jesus’ “love your enemies,” and this idealistic quote from 16th century Spanish priest, Bartolomé de las Casas:

It clearly appears that there are no races in the world, however rude, uncultivated, barbarous, gross or almost brutal they may be, who cannot be persuaded and brought to a good order and way of life, and made domestic, mild and tractable, provided . . . the method that is proper and natural to men is used; that is, love and gentleness and kindness.

If you’ve ever camped out at a music festival, you’ve experienced the kind of community I want to elucidate. The lack of walls between households, the open schedules, the scarcity of resources, all contribute to the ease and frequency of engaging with one’s neighbors in the borrowing of ketchup, late night talks and songs, or joining in a game of volleyball. People make new friends, break bread together, invite others to their campfire, or assist neighbors with setup and/or take-down of campsites. I argue that is at least virtuous, if not divine, to be a soul that delights in constructively contributing to the formation of community.

I’ve often wished that my residential neighborhood could achieve such intimacy. I know there are elderly widows and widowers in my block that would benefit. But it’s not just they that suffer from loneliness; everyone does. People that are surrounded by numerous, flawless, easily maintained friendships only exist in fictional TV characters.

I often relate to “Hell is other people.” People are hard work. Social interaction is awkward. Relationships are high-maintenance. Small talk is difficult to conjure, boring, and often a waste of time. People, some more than others, are emotionally exhausting. Humans interface others with a long list of pet peeves, irritations and aversions. Hygiene, grammar, dress, gender, race, political and religious affiliations, sexual orientation, sexual attraction, worldviews, ideologies, sports interests (or lack), how and what we like to eat, musical tastes, etc. all complicate the interaction of two people and multiply exponentially with each additional person.

Let’s remove any shame that accompanies wanting to avoid people. We are each stewards of our own lives with a finite amount of energy in a 24-hour day. It is perfectly legitimate to see someone you don’t have the energy for and maneuver to avoid contact or put a time limit on the encounter. It is not necessary to be the martyr that always sacrifices your freedom for the sake of another’s feelings. Can we not sometimes “love our enemies” from a controlled distance? Of course we can, and should. I cannot underestimate the value of me-time, solitude and silence. These times energize me to have more to give when I am with others. The introvert/extrovert labels are never mutually exclusive. It has more to do with where one generates energy—among people or apart. But “no man is an island.”

That said, we are not off the hook from doing our part to foster community. In acknowledging that people are hard work, I am inferring that laziness, not realism, is a big deterrent to us buying in to Casas’ vision of community. Vibrant community, with all its benefits, does not just happen without exerted effort on the part of its participants.

Society spends too much energy on behavior management and not enough energy on exercising our grace/compassion/forgiveness muscles. I anticipate the day when we, as a society, recognize the nobility and maturity of those who are not easily offended and the underdeveloped and immature state of those who are. My advice for maintaining long, sustainable and vibrant communities is to become tough-skinned, and acknowledge that it’s simply a matter of “when,” not “if,” we hurt one another. Expecting people to sooner or later screw up is an honest, common sense approach to human relationships and preempts the shock (and some of the sting) of its inevitable occurrence.

The strength of a community, like a chain, is partly determined by the strength of its individual members, or links. It is a great mystery how one finds a balance in bringing to the group both the need to receive and the ability to give. We cannot deny that we are all coming because of unmet needs in our lives and there’s certainly no shame in that. However, a deep pitfall exists when one enters the community with reciprocal expectations. We’ve all known scorekeepers—every good they perform has a built-in expectation of repayment, and every offense they incur has a built-in intention of revenge. This is where the genius of Jesus’ teachings shine. The love that Jesus describes is not meritorious—only for those who deserve it. What makes Jesus’ love transcendent was it was without qualification or reciprocation. This love is not mastered overnight. This love, like all artisan master crafts, is only developed over time and through rigorous practice. As difficult and contrary to nature as “turn the other cheek” sounds, Jesus elucidates a powerful secret to overcoming destructive behavior in our communities (and ultimately in the world). Jesus modeled a subversive exposure of evil by not warring against it, but by creating a witness to its emptiness by becoming the stage upon which it is played out. Ideally, a mature community, which includes the offender, will bear witness to the inferior path taken by the violence and, being careful to avoid blame and shame, will seek a healing reconciliation that fosters longevity.

I am throwing down a challenge to all who read this column. In the month of April, walk out your lives with the intention of creating the community you want for yourself. Toughen up, see yourself connected to everyone, strangers even. Let’s contribute to making Murfreesboro the type of community everyone wants to be a part of.

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