We often think that the things, the “stuff” of our lives, is what we need in order to be happy. And so, many of us find ourselves overwhelmed by a daily routine which we have filled to the brim with the stuff of “productivity,” as if the quality of our lives depended on how much we “do” or accomplish before we leave this world. Some are more resilient, less sensitive than others when it comes to managing the effort it takes to pull this off. Others, however, have a more difficult time. No matter how much they “do” nothing ever seems to be quite enough to give them a sense of fulfillment. For them, something incomprehensible is lacking in their lives. Some will try to “do” more and more, believing that their efforts will curtail the continued growth of their misery. But this is rarely the case. Their days become routines in futility. They simply accept that “life just sucks” and continue along on the hamster wheel producing more and more. Their lives become the definition of dysfunction – relationships suffer, health fails, sanity dissipates. And yet they are still driven to quell their suffering regardless of whether or not they know how. They wonder, “why me? Others do not seem to struggle as I do.” Soon, those of us who are fortunate enough may come to understand what it is that has been ultimately lacking in our lives, and incredibly, it’s not what we “do” or how much we “do” that determines whether or not we suffer more or less than others.
Eventually, we come into contact with the Other. We experience the presence of a person who listens to us authentically, validates our suffering, someone who recognizes our existence, an existence for all of us that is objectively, inherently, frustratingly, frighteningly meaningless. In such a moment of contact with the Other, we come to experience a lightness of being that has naught to do with happiness. For those of us who happen to be more aware, we grasp onto this idea that it isn’t so much what we “do” that makes life here more meaningful, more endurable, but rather with whom we affiliate. Or simply, that we affiliate at all. No, we are not islands. That pain we often feel, the one that seems difficult to label, to put words to, to define, that is the call of the Other, the call of communion.
The resolution of much of our suffering, a suffering that is caused by the resultant isolation of manic productivity, is the outcome of communion, of respectful, trusted sharing of our human experience. Most of our problems can be solved by simply spending time with a trusted Other. Sometimes we merely need a hug, not another checkbox for the already overwhelmingly, overflowing list of things we must “do” in order to find ourselves in what we have wrongly come to believe as a state of happiness. And so, I must respectfully disagree, in part, with one of my existentialist idols, Jean Paul Sartre, who said succinctly, “Hell is other people.” Hell is not always other people. Hell is our belief, consciously or not, that our contentment is the result of our total isolation from the Other.