No Exit? (Proper 4)
June 3rd, 2018
by The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
Lord you have searched me out and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up. You discern my thoughts from afar. I will thank you because I am marvelously made, your works are wonderful, and I know it well. (Psalm 139 v 1-2, 13)
In the Name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit
“Hell is other people.” This is a phrase I imagine you have heard before. The saying is attributed to John Paul Sartre, a famous 20th century French philosopher. The words are uttered by a character in one of his plays called “No Exit.” The play explores the idea of hell as a modestly furnished middle-class living room with comfortable, yet unmatching furniture with windows and doors that don’t open. In this room three characters are consigned to spend the rest of eternity in one another’s company, cut off from the rest of the world.
However, like many famous sayings, Sartre’s phrase, “Hell is other people,” is not exactly what he said or even what he meant. The actual translation from the French is “Hell is the Other.” Singular. With a capital “O.”
In an interview which preceded the recording of the play in 1965 Sartre clarified what he actually meant. He said:
“. . . ‘hell is other people’ has always been misunderstood. It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned, that they are invariably hellish relations. But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, or vitiated, then that other person can only be hell. Why? Because. . . when we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves, . . . we use the knowledge which other people already have of us. We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves. Into whatever I say about myself, someone else’s judgment always enters. Into whatever I feel within myself, someone else’s judgment always enters. . . But that does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us.”
The Other (with the capital O), according to Sartre, is that by which we define ourselves. The punishment of the three characters in the play is not carried out by any medieval torture device. Rather, their punishment is that they will only ever be able to define themselves through the distorting mirrors of the other people who reflect them badly, while at the same time they see themselves reflected badly in others. It’s no accident that in the play, the room the characters find themselves in has no mirror in which they can see their own reflection. Indeed, this idea that our self-knowledge is a product of the way we see ourselves in the Other is a fundamental principle of philosophy.
You may perhaps already see the implications of this. If we understand ourselves only as others see us, our self-knowledge will always be limited and distorted. Our sense of self will merely be a composite of our human relationships, the good ones, the bad ones and otherwise. The result is that others confer our identity upon us and we are beholden to their judgment. Aristotle, writing 2000 years earlier than Sartre, had a similar insight when he pointed out that even a life of honor could never be a truly happy life, because honor and approval depend on the opinions of others. And, opinions are not facts, nor are they stable or always grounded in truth.
I imagine many of us know what it is like to be beholden to the opinions and approval of others. The problem is even more pronounced because we inhabit multiple roles. We can be trapped by the judgments of our spouse, our parents, our children, our boss, our colleagues, and our friends—and all at the same time—like a net thrown upon us from which we cannot escape. Further complicating the matter is that these people don’t all share the same judgments about us. Our colleagues may think we are brilliant and we may enjoy a sort of celebrity status at work, but at the same time we may live with the fact that our parents think we’ve never measured up, or that our children resent us because we don’t know how to relate to them, or that our spouse continually complains of us being emotionally absent. And, then we might have a friend who thinks we can do nothing wrong.
So, if this is the case, on which of these judgments can we depend? Is it the judgment of the one who has known us the longest or who is closest to us? Unfortunately, the length and nearness of the relationship does not always guarantee truthfulness, because sometimes we can get locked into patterns of behavior that simply try to preserve the relationship at any cost, but are not authentic, truthful or healthy. Ask anyone who has experienced co-dependency about how hellish life can sometimes be. The fact of the matter is that everyone probably has something right about us and everyone probably has something wrong about us, too. Each person with whom we are relationship can tell us something about who we are, but no one person can tell us wholly who we are.
Except, of course, God.
“Lord, you have searched me out and known me!” Can you hear the psalmist sing this with relief, with joy? “You know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways. Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, but you, O Lord, know it all together.” The psalmist does not sing this as a knowledge to be feared. Because in the next line he breaks out in a doxology of praise. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain to it!”
The Psalmist tells us that God is the only Other (with a capital O), on whose knowledge of us is absolutely total.
Sartre, of course, does not introduce God into his play as being the only way to exit from the hell of the incomplete and distorted knowledge others. However, as Christians it should be clear to us that being in relationship with God is the only way to escape from that prison. When I read this psalm I can hear a freedom in the psalmists voice; the freedom that comes from being liberated from self-deception and false knowledge; the freedom of being in a relationship where we are always known and loved for the person we truly are, not the person others want us to be, or the people we pretend to be to secure the approval of others.
It is curious then, why we so often try to hide from God, the one source which can give us the only true knowledge of ourselves. I suspect we try to hide from God because there are some truths about ourselves that we simply do not want to know or are hard to accept. It is hard to confront the truth of our own sin, our own brokenness, or the brokenness of our relationships.
Anyone who has ever made a searching sacramental confession or done steps 4 and 5 of a 12-step program, where they are asked to compile a “searching and fearless moral inventory” and “admit to God, themselves, and another human being the exact nature of those wrongs”–they know how hard it is. It is painful work, since it reveals that we are not living as the person God created us to be. It forces us to realize that we are not always the good person that we think we are or who others tell us that we are.
We may also hide from God because we worry about God’s judgment. But, unlike the partial and often distorted judgment of other people under which the characters in Sartre’s play suffer for all eternity, the paradox of the Christian life is that the self-knowledge we receive through God’s judgment is healing. It makes us whole and it sets us free from the judgment of others. The point of confessing our sin is not to inform God of things he doesn’t already know. The point of confessing our sins is to show God that we know what our sins are, how they imprison us, and to acknowledge that he is the only one who can set us free.
But as we think about the judgment of God, it is important to remember that God does not dispense his judgment as a disinterested 3rd party from on high. God is the God of mercy and grace because, as our Creator, he is connected to us at the deepest and most intimate level. He is wholly and inextricably invested in us. He is our greatest relationship, our only true Other.
The psalmist sings of the deep personal connection God has with us, “For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will thank you because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful and I know it well. My body was not hidden from you while I was being made in secret and woven in the depth of the earth.” This is another real truth about us: even though we are sinners, we are marvelously made and a wonderful work of God.
When we can exit out of the prison of distorted self-understanding, we will start to see ourselves as the wonderful, marvelous and unique work of God’s creation. If we open ourselves to God, asking for his mercy and being open to his grace, we will see that each act of God’s mercy and grace will seal up the cracks in our soul, straighten out the deformities of our character, and smooth out our rough edges, bringing us into that final form to which he has destined us from the beginning. God’s hands never leave us, like the potter with the clay, he is continually at work to bring us to the fullness of our being. We simply need to let God lead us out of the prisons of our self-deception to the life of spiritual freedom that we all so desperately seek, but only God can grant.
I will leave you with a personal challenge by way of a brief story:
A number of years ago, a friend of mine, Steve, who is an Air Force chaplain, decided to challenge his two children to memorize Psalm 139. His daughter was 14 and his son was 11. Knowing that the daughter was more likely to memorize the psalm than his son, Steve offered an incentive for them to cooperate. If only one of them memorized the Psalm he or she would get $50 dollars. But if both of them memorized it, he would give them each $75. The monetary incentive scheme worked. Both children appeared in front of him and each recited the psalm. Steve was $150 poorer, but his children were, no doubt richer both monetarily and spiritually.
To commit something to memory is to commit to making it a permanent part of one’s life. And, my friend’s hope was that by memorizing Psalm 139, his children would gain some of the most enduring truths about God and themselves that they would carry with them for the rest of their life. Psalm 139 tells us that God knows everything about us and that there is nothing that we can hide from him. God is never, has never, and will never be absent from our lives. Even when we think otherwise. The Psalm tells us that God is personally connected and invested in each of us; as our Creator he is committed to bringing us into that wonderful and marvelous final shape and form for which we are destined. What a wonderful message for a parent to want to impress upon his children. With God there is always an exit out the room where the windows and doors don’t open. Indeed, perhaps heaven is being trapped in a room with God for all eternity. Perhaps, we might do well to memorize Psalm 139 ourselves.