Thursday, 4 February 2016

How far away is Hell?

The concept of hell is synonymous with an afterlife but it is also a final destination. The last hurrah, as it were from where there is no turning back. Christianity evokes a huge guilt factor- if we have sinned, we go to hell, an exclusion zone for 'bad' people and crucially, one where there is a permanent  separation from God. Jean-Paul Sartre famously described hell as 'other people'. (Given that Sartre was a nihilist, who by definition doubt the existence of God or an afterlife, one could argue how obvious an observation this actually is.)

The etymology of 'hell' refers to a world reserved solely for the dead. One could only experience hell after life and in many faiths and cultures, this other dimension signifies torment and endless punishment in perpetuity (that is, if time applies there).

I recently re-read Milton's famous poem, Paradise Lost, and the penny dropped superbly as it often does with great writing.
'Which way I fly is hell, myself am hell.'

Is there not too a type of hell on earth? A friend recently remarked that she hates her aging body- the sagging skin, the lack of vitality, the wrinkles and seeing her looks fade is tantamount to a cruel punishment. 'I once used to be beautiful!', she wailed.

Others may rue the challenges and bad luck they have often faced and many will know first-hand that nothing ever comes easily in life and certainly not without a heavy cost. What about the images of refugees, lifeless on an otherwise idyllic beach, the outcome of escaping war and persecution- is theirs not the worst fate to have to choose?

We are already consumed by hell; some have been forced into it and others have chosen it willingly.

When appearance is everything, there are those desperate to stop time in its tracks- the veneers, the face lifts- or to embellish their appearance- breast augmentation, nose jobs. This perpetual search for the elixir of youth poses several questions. By forcing time to stand still are we not just delaying the inevitable? And in so doing, are we not creating our own misery? When the anaesthetic wears off, we had better like the surgeon's handwork. There is also an element of self-loathing, or as it were, living in a hell of our own making because we cannot accept ourselves as we are. A recent survey concluded that one in two British women hate the way they look. This too is the Achilles Heel of the human condition: to want to be someone else, somewhere else or something else that is more perfect that our present reality.

The opposite of hell is heaven (real or imagined)  otherwise put, the perfection we seemingly yearn for. Whilst we associate hell with punishment, suffering and cruelty, heaven is a place of repose, peacefulness and endless joy. A type of nirvana filled with bliss-on-tap but without the mind-altering drugs. Many of us would find it difficult to make the transition from stressed-out to blissed-out and would probably also find the experience somewhat comical. I would argue that we choose hell willingly over its arch-enemy, contentment and because we have gotten too used to the demands of daily living. Letting go and giving in to the universe don't fit it in with our expectations of life anymore. We prefer to be popular, well-off, attractive and most importantly, to have everything we want. Yet we still perceive that if we have been 'good', 'bad' things should never happen to us.

So we choose hell but in many ways, we need to. By making mistakes, wrong decisions and failing, we learn to recognise the difference between what we need to do in order to be happier and what we can live without. Regret, recriminations and in some ways, tragedy, are the spurs which propel us towards a better future. Without experiencing hell on earth, we would not have the courage to find inner peace nor be able to create a happier life for ourselves. In order to be happy, one must learn to overcome unhappiness. Ironically, one is not born happy but every one of us without exception, is forced to earn it.

An unhappy life is a living hell but it does not have to be. We can choose to turn sad tears into rivers of joy. And I guarantee even the devil himself would be impressed.

Photo copyright SvD.

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