When I was a freshman in college things were bad, and I dragged myself to therapy. I’d stopped being able to cope with the depression I’d just barely coped with most of my life. College was hard, and I didn’t have a clue. There was this girl who was into me and then not into me and then into me again. And I had this roommate… It was college.
Dr. R. and I talked about a lot of things. We talked about my mother, of course, and we talked about that eternal college question of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. For that, I actually had a very detailed plan. I even had sketches.
It’s hard not to laugh now; I’m not exactly an artist. But I had several pages of detailed drawings of this house I intended to build in Alaska. I’d thought about everything. Mostly, it was designed around the view: snow capped mountains and what not. But I planned space for all the various activities I imagined being a part of my life. There was a darkroom, a big kitchen, a place to keep all my mountain-climbing gear. I honestly can’t remember it all, but one thing was given: It was a house designed for one.
Dr. R. listened patiently as I showed him the sketches and told him about my life to be. And then he said something that was otherwise unlike him:
“I don’t think that’s what you really want.”
The guy had decided to be a pain in the ass. Wasn’t he listening? There were sketches! SKETCHES!
I put my outrage aside long enough to find out what he meant. And he told me: “You like people.”
It seriously pissed me off. Who was this guy–this shrink!–to tell me I didn’t know what kind of life I wanted? I HATED people. Wasn’t it obvious? Had he been listening? About the girl? And my roommate?
The worst part was that he was right.
Sure, there are lots of good reasons to hate people. People are temperamental, unreliable, needy, difficult creatures–unquestionably. And they’re exactly what I wanted.
People, who are a pain in the ass.
Fast forward about 15 years. I’m sitting in the other chair, talking with a patient about her difficulties making friends and building relationships of all sorts. And she says to me, “I’ve just never been able to figure out what I’ve been doing wrong. I get to know people, and sooner or later, inevitably, it turns out that they’re not who I thought they were. They’re–well–the people I end up becoming friends with all turn out to be a pain in the ass!”
“Yep,” I replied, with a lot more snark than Dr. R. would have ever allowed himself, “Sounds to me like you’ve been hanging out with people.”
She tried to struggle through. “You mean–what you’re telling me–what I’m supposed to do is, on purpose, get close to people who are a pain in the ass?”
That’s exactly what I meant.
What it means to have actual, human, in-the-flesh relationships with other people is having relationships with people, who are a pain in the ass. (That comma is oh so important!)
“Hell is other people.”
Jean-Paul Sartre gets credit for a phrase he was no doubt far from the first to utter. One can imagine a cabal of Neanderthals grunting it in their Neanderthal tongue after a long day of navigating through the quagmire of Neanderthal social relations: “Hell is other people.”
I believe it, but I’ve also come to believe what Dr. R. was telling me 15 years ago, namely that life, too, is other people. It’s a good news/ bad news story. The downside, of course, is that a life devoid of people (even if it were possible, which it’s not) isn’t much of a life at all. And yes, people are really difficult. Life would be much, much easier without them.
But people are also beautiful, giving, powerful creatures, and in spite of all the downsides, I’ll take them over an Alaskan hideout anytime.