Jean-Paul Sartre’s acidic comment that “Hell is other people” draws much of its bite from our realization that we are all other people. As long as those devils are around us, we are still discovering who our own are. Adjusting the figure, who I am is that ongoing work of art, messing up my palette and brushes with the smell and clutter of other folks.
The appearance of one person recently deflated all of my lofty, aerated reflections on how nobly and responsibly social I am. It was an event that threw the dimensions of my own individuality, empathy, social obligation and basic humanity into disarray. The silent presence of another individual, eagerly trying to stabilize similar dimensions, effectively served up the wrong magnetic pole to my sense of self in society.
As with the characters in Sartre’s No Exit, the very space of my encounter triggered my sense of a wronged self, my selfishness. The room, the spacious first floor lobby of my apartment building, was mine. What was she doing in it? Well, she was visiting her friend who also owns the room by virtue of a routine rent check. It just so happened that at the same time, I was visiting a friend of mine who lives in the building. Problem?
At any given moment, we are, in large part, a buzzing, more-or-less enervated sum of what our histories have traced in our nervous systems. And, though she is probably unaware of it, this woman and I have a history. And I have the problem. Not she. I have only seen her over the span of about three years. She walks the sidewalks near my apartment building. Walking is tough for her because she carries a bag that I assume (my pattern in assessing her) holds at least half of her belongings. Easily in her fifties, she is personally unkempt. She panhandles for cigarettes near the corner Walgreens. She probably (the assumption reflex again) panhandles for cash. That particular day it was eighteen degrees in Milwaukee and she was inside our lobby, talking to her friend. The problem? My outrage.
Thankfully, I have been jolted beyond my assumptions. I have uncovered a history of judgments about this person, all as unfounded as if I were inventing a character for fiction. Some fearfully messy cobweb about “there but for the grace of God” has waved me down this now spooky back alley of my self-righteousness to avoid contact with her. I have more than assumed her identity, history, and and social constellation; I have labeled them contagious. I have actually changed my walking course to avoid being near her.
The way out is mechanical but not necessarily cold or heartless. All it takes is a moment of eye-contact even if that eventually evokes my “Sorry, I don’t smoke.” (I’m unlikely to start smoking over that exchange.) There is humanity in such a potentially routine or planned exchange. What should have long ago warmed me to at least acknowledge her presence is that she is a person. What heightens that reality is that she ekes out whatever living she can in the same neighborhood of the same district of the same city as I. Whether she can or should enter a given building nudges the concern of human kindness into the domain of justice.—And this is just a matter of two folks on Cambridge Avenue. I’ve been too pre-occupied with that safely far away road “down from Jerusalem to Jericho.”