The French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a play called No Exit. I won’t be able to do it justice here, but three of the four characters in the drama get locked in a room together for eternity. You probably read this play in high school English, but if you didn’t, that plot might sound familiar right now as we reach the 97th day of May in the year of our Lord, two-thousand and twenty.
Joseph Garcin, the man of the room is a coward who was unfaithful to his wife. He was executed for some crime or another. Inez slept with her cousin’s wife before convincing the woman to murder him. Estelle married for money, cheated and was essentially a terrible human. You know, just your average sitcom cast here, except if Sartre bothered to include any humor, it soared right over my head.
While locked in the room, interpersonal dynamics drive the plot as they try to figure out how to be in this finite space where they can’t even turn the lights off. Ever. The whole thing turns out to be an illustration of damnation- of the eternal conscious torment kind. They’ve been placed there to irritate each other for eternity. It’s really uplifting and everyone walks away from the play feeling good about themselves.
Sartre’s premise? People are hell. Who needs demons armed with pitchforks when you have others around you whose words and intentions are barbed? We have all experienced a range of unpleasantries from our fellow humans. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we’ve returned the favor on more than seventy times seven occasions, whether it was intentional or not.
With many of us staying home a lot right now, we might be feeling this. You love your spouse and children, but that doesn’t mean that you want to be with them every waking second of your life. Which doesn’t make you a terrible person. Quarantine may feel a little like Sartre’s No Exit. You can’t seem to escape the people in your own home, some of which you may have helped bring into the world. And it’s driving you nuts.
Being around other people can be hard. We have conflicting desires. Often, we’re after the same pool of resources (Mostly money, food, and attention. But also toilet paper). Some of us say rotten things to each other. Many of us have moments where we didn’t even consider the needs or desires of those around us. Forgiveness is difficult. Asking for help is humbling. This litany could go on ad nauseam because any number of things can move us to say, No thanks. I’m out. I couldn’t imagine being around you all the time and forever. That truly would be not only a nightmare, but hell incarnate.
Except, that isn’t how it’s supposed to be.
In the beginning, when God was making all the things and the stuff, he got to man and said,“Let us make this one in our image, after our likeness.”
He said, let humanity see us when they’re walking down the street and pass that neighbor who plays music too loudly late into the night. Let them see us when they wake up in the morning and roll over to their spouse, still asleep, slightly sweaty and snoring. Let them see us sitting across the table from them, stealing fries off their plate. Let them bear our image and be a visual and tangible reminder of who they belong to. Let us write about ourselves in flesh and blood and bone.
It’s really quite lovely and romantic. But sin has its part in the cosmic play. It’s a perversion of God’s creation. The mirror, built to reflect God’s image is cracked, the face in it skewed. Our relationship with God, the earth, others and even our relationship to ourselves are all broken and that’s what makes life and relating to each other hellish more often than we’d like to admit. Sartre only mentioned the word sin once in his play and he didn’t point to it as the foundation of his premise.
We weren’t created to be hell to each other, but to reflect of love and light and truth Himself.
To be fair, I know a lot of people are semi-enjoying this stay at home stuff, I’m acknowledging that and moving on with my point. Some of you feel your house getting smaller and smaller and the next thing you know, you sound like Carrie from Portlandia telling Fred, “You’re always breathing down the back of my neck. Like, I can feel your hot breath on me all the time.” (The skit is that they were living in a micro-house in a micro-community at the time.)
And while we were created in God’s image, we didn’t get his traits of being omniscient and omnipresent, so it can be tough when it feels like your roommate or toddler is in all the same places that you are. Especially when sin is a part of the picture. Yes, their sin, but also yours.
It occurred to me over and over whilst writing this is that No Exit is a reality for a lot of people all the time. A stay-at-home mom friend of mine told me months ago that she’s always being touched by one of her three children. She rightly thinks her children are adorable and still, she described the experience as maddening. Another stated that she generally has some damp spot on her person that she is not responsible for. Stay at home parents, some of us might be able to relate to you a little better now. Which means that this is bigger than a play.
While No Exit speaks to our season in quarantine, the idea actually breaks out of the four walls of Sartre’s eternal cell pretty well. No, I don’t believe that people are hell, but the fact remains that relating to each other can be difficult. This was true before Covid-19 and it will be after. Because sin and other differences we have between us.
So what do we do? How do we do better?
For starters, we understand that as much as somebody may be challenging for us at some point or with too much proximity, that is likely reciprocal. We are not perfect and we aren’t always a joy to be around. A little humility goes a long way in this drama.
Second, as much as I want to tell everybody (including myself) to stop sinning, to stop being inconsiderate and selfish, that doesn’t generally help all that much. Turns out that stuff doesn’t have an on/off switch. So we have to pray. For ourselves, for our loved ones, for our relationships. And that God would help us to stop sinning and being selfish and thinking we’re right all the time. And then we need to be able to repent and apologize and forgive. Over and over again, likely for the same things.
Third, while Sartre wrote No Exit with no end in sight for his protagonists… antagonists…complex characters, we will eventually be free. Probably. It might be a year, but some states are opening up a bit until there’s a flare up of cases. I think we’ll get out. Yes, let’s plan on it sometime.