No Hell Below Us

May 11th, 2011

In his play “No Exit” French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” In the play three people find themselves bunking down for a sleepless eternity in a crowded room. They become each other’s torturers. Sartre was making the point that we create hell by poisoning our relationships with judgment.

The belief in hell is attractive to the small self because the ego longs to live forever, and suffering serves the desire to be a victim. The ego also has a penchant for living in the delusion of separateness and the cunning strategy of dividing people into absolute categories of good and evil with appropriate rewards and punishments suits the ego down to the ground. It’s interesting that 63% of Americans believe in hell where people are punished eternally, but when the question becomes more pointed, “Do you think you will go to hell after death?” only 1% say they are going to hell. Nearly 2/3 of Americans believe in hell but virtually no one thinks they’re going there. Americans seem to think that hell is other people too.

It is comforting to put other people in the box of evil, because it makes the small self feel righteous and safe. There may have been some of this in the response to the killing of Osama bin Laden last week. A few times I had to pause and wonder what it was we were celebrating. I don’t fully understand the psychology of celebrating the violent death of any person.  I can understand celebrating a sense of relief like you might have at the end of a drawn out trauma, but this felt different to relief. It was too joyful, almost smug. The word “justice” was used too often, or in the case of Rudi Giliani the word “revenge”. Justice that is based in revenge just adds hate to hate, and revenge is an insatiable beast that in the words of Ghandi “makes the whole world blind.”

The death of bin Laden should be celebrated but not because of his personal demise. Rather it should be celebrated as part of the demise of bin Ladenism and all that this ideology represented. His death was one more step in a process of global transformation that has been taking place for some time, a raising of global consciousness being led by young, non violent protestors in the Middle East who neither looked to bin Laden for leadership nor served his violent agenda. We should celebrate these free spirits as well as the resilience of Americans who refused to give in to the cunning terrorist plot to engender fear and uncertainty into everyday life. If we revoked the Patriot Act that was only ever supposed to be a temporary measure after 9/11, we could celebrate the choice to no longer live in mistrust and suspicion. The judgment that policies such as the Patriot Act engender create the hell on earth that Sartre was talking about.

Responding from our highest self, we don’t need to imagine bin Laden in hell. We can make peace with him, knowing that his agenda failed because we wouldn’t let it infiltrate our psyches. To live in fear and paranoia is to be in a hell of our own making. We can make peace with bin Laden, knowing that like many misguided extremists before him, he had a partial truth about heavy handed American foreign policy that created more enemies and ambiguous allies than it solved problems. We now seem to be heeding the message but we hear it so much clearer from non violent protestors in the Arab world than we do from extremists that it’s time to let Middle Eastern countries create their own form of democracy.

Without for a second condoning the calculated violence of bin Laden, we need to respond from a higher perspective than his. Bin Laden has his own spiritual karma to deal with and if he was still alive an international tribunal, in the mode of the war crimes tribunal following the twentieth century great wars, would be appropriate. But this approach is radically different from celebrating his death and deluding ourselves that his demise either makes us safer or better as a global community. In our exuberance at his death we stooped to his level and it was an unfortunate hiccup in an otherwise encouraging movement towards higher consciousness.

At a time of global transformation such as we find ourselves in now, we are reminded that the suffering of anyone, even the most corrupt individual, hurts the whole. The small self’s desire for righteousness in making others wrong is insatiable. Responding from the highest perspective, we know that each of us is responsible only for our own karma but we find true satisfaction in our connection to the whole. We can only be different because we are part of a global system that supports our individuality.

The counterpart to Sartre’s hell in a room crowded with judgment is the old Jewish story about the difference between heaven and hell. The Rabbi first showed his students hell by taking them to a room with a large round table. There were many people sitting around it, and they were desperately hungry, which didn’t make sense because in the middle of the table was a huge pot of stew. The people all had spoons with very long handles which could easily reach into the pot. The problem was that because the spoon handles were so much longer than their arms, they could not get the food to their mouths. They were starving in the midst of plenty.

Then he showed his students heaven by taking them to another room where there was another large round table. As before, there were as many people with long-handled spoons reaching into the pot of stew. These people were well nourished and happy because they had realized the secret of community. They were feeding each other. Unity in diversity with a balance between individual rights and group needs is heaven on earth. Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.

Ps. My friend Jacob Nordby expressed similar sentiments in his blog. He’s well worth following.

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  1. Jacob Nordby says:


    my brother!  What a beautifully written and thought-provoking piece.  Thank you for your work in this world.

    I had similar feelings (expressed differently, of course) here >>

    namaste to you and all the world

    Jacob Nordby

  2. ian says:

    thanks Jacob- same thoughts to you. I just added your link to my article

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