T.S. Elliot said that “Hell is a place where nothing connects” and that “Hell is oneself,” John Paul Satre replied to this by saying that no, “Hell is other people.”
The truth is that to some extent they are both correct. Hell, at least on earth, can often be oneself and it can be other people too.
Elliot believed that self absorption and self protection was what caused people to feel separate and alone. Many people today have a great deal of self awareness and yet they still feel cut off from life. Are we too self absorbed and are we suffering because we are experiencing over examined and under connected lives? Have we become lost in ourselves?
I believe there is truth in this, although it is not the whole truth. Perhaps some people feel cut off and alone because they are too focused on the faults in others. How often do we hear folk blaming others for all of their problems? This builds barriers and creates loneliness and cuts people off from one another. Yes hell can be ourselves and yes it can be other people too.
For many years of my life I felt disconnected cut off, lost and lonely. I felt like I was living in hell. I saw hell as myself and I also saw it as other people too. From a young age I learnt to protect myself from life, from pain. Of course I failed utterly in my attempts to do so, all I succeeded in achieving, eventually, was to cut myself off from any joy and actually experienced a deeper more ingrained suffering, what I have heard described as “the suffering within the suffering”.
I have learnt that Heaven and Hell, at least here on earth, are two sides of the same coin. They possess similar characteristics, although there is one important difference, how they are experienced. How we respond to suffering illustrates this perfectly. Two people can go through the same difficulties in life and yet they will often react to them very differently. For one it may well be described as a living hell and yet for the other they may well claim that they got a taste of heaven as they walked through it.
Suffering can cause division within ourselves and others either through self pity, or embarrassment or through the sense that life is treating us unfairly, that fate is singling us out. That said the very same experience of suffering can also unite us through a deeper shared sense of compassion and empathy. Suffering can lead us to feel as though we have been cast into hell and yet through it we can also get a taste of heaven. Or as Forrest Church put it “At times of trouble, alone we are often lost. But by reaching out to and for others we entertain the possibility of redemption.” In our suffering we can build up walls of self protection and yet at the same time this same suffering can foster compassion within us.
The fostering of compassion is I believe the purpose of religious community. By developing our compassion we can create heaven in our own lifetimes. By not fleeing from suffering, our own, or that of others, we can show to one another that in times of trouble we are not alone, we are not lost. By reaching out both to and for others we get a taste of heaven. Karen Armstrong says” that religion For me these intimations of holiness and sacredness is what connection is all about.
Heaven is a place where everything connects.