For the past week or so, I have had discussions about existentialism for two periods each day. In my AP French class, we just finished reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. No Exit is play about three deceased characters who are punished for their actions on Earth by being locked in a room together for eternity. The three characters become entangled in a love triangle and each create a personal Hell for the two others. While reading the play, I struggled to connect it to Camus’ The Stranger and the existentialist discussions we had in class. I was not sure how the play’s underlying theme- “L’enfer, c’est les autres” or “Hell is other people”- is applicable to the argument that the meaning of life is life itself. I could not comprehend how these two seemingly unrelated ideas were derived from the same philosophy.
After speaking with my French teacher about some of these thoughts, I now understand that Hell is other people because what we fear most and loathe most is the judgement of others. The idea is not that other people are hell because they can be annoying or rude; the idea is that other people are hell because of how they make us feel about ourselves. Existentialism is being free from social constructs and the judgement of others that reinforces those constructs. In No Exit, the characters’ damnation is an eternity of seeking approval from others and never receiving it. Other people cannot provide your life with meaning. I think that meaning is something you have to define for yourself.
Although I agree with existentialism to some extent, I have had quite a hard time practicing the philosophy. I have found that the most significant deterrent that is preventing me from embracing existentialism is in fact my fear of being judged by others. I think that I have internalized too many social constructs to be a true existentialist, but I am open to becoming more self aware like Camus’ Meursault or Sartre’s Ines.