When I was a freshman in high school I played Inez in the existential writer John Paul Sartre’s No Exit. As an angry but well-meaning goth kid, this was pretty much my dream role. The play is about three people who realize they’ve died and gone to hell, and that “hell is other people.” More accurately, hell is the consequence of their actions mirrored back to them by others who can see through their self-deception. They’re caught in a lust-triangle of seeking validation from one another to escape the truth of what they’ve done. Even when the truth comes out, they can’t accept responsibility for their behavior and endlessly torture each other as a result.
A little grim, right?
There actually is an exit, and Sartre believed that. If hell is a lack of awareness and responsibility, then that can be changed (no matter how discouraged we feel when we turn on the news).
He says that by choosing who we want to be, we are taking part in creating the world we live in. “Nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all. If….we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves. Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole.”
My simplified takeaway from this is to make choices that are good for me just as I’d want other people to make choices that are good for them. I want to recognize and own my shortcomings, and I hope others will do the same. All that I can control are my own choices. I thought about this during my middle school years when I became vegan. I wore T-shirts with factory farm footage on them because I thought the world would be a better place if people cared about the suffering of animals, though this wasn’t the best way to motivate people to think about their food choices! Part of me was a lost teenager who needed a cause, but the truer meaning is that it broke my heart to see such reckless disregard for the wellness of animals. I knew my personal choice to not eat meat wasn’t going to make a huge impact, but it felt right.
It’s not so easy to live with complete integrity. I’m not always at my 100 percent, but I try my best to release whatever gets in the way.
All my “new choices” for the “new year” started yesterday, which is how it goes sometimes. I’d just hauled a bunch of stuff to the dump, so it seemed like a good time to start. Also, we just had a lunar eclipse, or the Super Blood Wolf Moon. When the moon has that kind of title, we’d better do something! It was a good time for some clearing and change.
Most of my intentions involved starting up routines I’d let slide during the holidays. One routine is to meditate every day. When I sat down to do this, my stomach clenched up and I became aware of some stuff I’d been holding onto, which I thought I’d moved through already! That’s the thing with anxiety or other emotions: they inundate us when we least expect them. What we think about a situation doesn’t always match how we feel about it. That’s why I’ve never liked affirmations. A lot of people wonder what they’re doing wrong when they don’t feel better with positive thinking.
Positive thinking absolutely has its time and place. If affirmations help you, please keep at it! If they don’t seem to help, there’s nothing wrong with you. Try telling yourself the kindest thing you can about whatever you’re going through. Simply acknowledge what you feel without resisting or analyzing it. See what happens when you stop trying to fix it or make it go away.
It actually felt good to acknowledge some stuff during my turbulent meditation, and to make room for fear and whatever else was going on—being real with myself. I’m still struggling with this issue and maybe I will my whole life. Cool, I acknowledged it. I’m aware, so I can work on it.
I sat again today. (Actually, I like to lay down with an eye pillow when I meditate, as long as I’m not too sleepy). This time, there was no sadness or anxiety. I felt peaceful and grounded, and I know the next time will be different. I also did some strength training for dancing, and realized that after a month or two of barely doing anything, strength goes away. Imagine that! I didn’t feel discouraged, though (I would have in the past). If something is that important to us, we can work at it again. It should make us happy.
Our mind is also like a muscle that needs to be kept in shape. Good habits can become as second nature as any bad habits, such as getting down on ourselves or coping with anxiety in ways that feel good in the moment and are harmful in the long run (we’ve all been there—we want to feel better, and that’s not a bad motive).
Self-compassion takes vigilance! You are the only constant person in your life, so be mindful of how you’re treating yourself. We can start to build better habits by focusing on things that are in our control, and what we have gratitude for. We can also learn to hold space for our pain without shutting it down or plastering it with happy faces or gold stars.
Life happens, and there’s a lot about it that we can’t understand or control. Sometimes it drives us into the existential blues, and we lose purpose or direction in our lives. Maybe the choice we have to make is to accept that’s what’s up, for now. Then work on strengthening our relationships and becoming more present, defining our values. We can always start from wherever we’re at.