By Adam J. Pearson
Fast Reflections: Introduction
This post is the part of a series called “Fast Reflections.” In contrast to my longer, more in-depth articles, Fast Reflections are short, quick reads that present a single idea to consider. Their purpose is to inspire some contemplation when you only have a few minutes to invest, like on a coffee break or while waiting for the bus.
Fast Reflection #1: Heaven is other people.
The French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre once famously remarked that “hell is other people.” It’s certainly true that we annoy, anger, and even hurt each other sometimes, but overall, I’m very grateful that I live in a universe populated by other sentient beings. If I had to live with only my own cobwebby thoughts and limited perspectives to keep me company, I’d probably drive myself mad; being eternally alone with my own egoic mind would be far more “hellish” to me than the existence of other people was to Sartre.
I love the bliss of connection, the golden bridging of rapport, the fire of love and passion, the empowering relief of supporting each other through life’s struggles, the unassailable bonds of authentic friendship. I love when people tell me things that I had never even considered before. That’s the most amazing moment. I love having my mind blown by my own ignorance when I am exposed to a point of view that is totally fresh and new to me. It’s like suddenly, thanks to other people’s willingness to voice their ideas, my mind now includes a little more of the world; they have made it a little vaster. As we push back the bounds of the unknown, we tend to grow.
In Mahayana Buddhism, there’s the ideal of a “bodhisattva”, a person who vows to postpone their own final enlightenment until every other being has been completely liberated from suffering. I think there’s a great deal of beauty, nobility, compassion, and strength in this ideal. Life is inherently vulnerable and rife with difficulties alongside its joys and pleasures; we never know if today will be our last. However, we do not face our existential struggles alone; there is a universality to many of the challenges we face. And thankfully, we get to face them together. We get to save one another one day and be saved by one another the next.
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once said that “God is in the in-between,” the space between I and Thou, where ‘you’ and ‘me’ become ‘we.’ That certainly seems to be where the love, joy, peace, and salvation from suffering that we crave seem to be. We may find their deepest roots within, but they only begin to flower and bear fruit when we reach out to extend them to each other.
As I go through the day, the ego often tempts me to judge and condemn the people around me for a wide variety of reasons. But I don’t have to choose to do that. I can choose to love and forgive instead, and when I do, I choose to be free; in this sense, the other person offers me an opportunity to find salvation from suffering in the present moment through choosing to forgive instead of attack and see through the lens of present peace rather than past fear. In this sense, they offer me the keys to heaven, ironically through whatever it is about them that my ego wants to attack or condemn.
This doesn’t mean that I let myself become a doormat for others to walk all over; setting healthy boundaries for how we will allow others to treat us is also important. It only means that I choose to lovingly release the hold of the past on my present. I choose to find joy, love, and peace in the only moment I can ever find them: now. The power of decision is my own. And I choose to be, not a slave to the past, but free in the present, not a victim of my history, but liberated and empowered in the now.
In closing, the roots of heaven–unconditional inner love, joy, and peace–are within us. After I find them within, however, they get tested and–if authentic–find expression in the relationships I have with other people. Therefore, if it’s true, and I think it is, that our salvation lies in the “in-between” of our relationships, then perhaps, at least in this sense, not hell, but heaven is other people.