In Satre’s play, No Exit, three people wake up in hell. Their new world consists of each other, a small room, and a door.
Once all three subjects enter the room, shepherded in by a demure psychopomp, the door locks. Though they may try, none of the characters are able to budge it. Their shouts of protest go unheard.
But, wait. Let me tell you something first. Keep reading. I’ll get back to No Exit, I promise.
Besides Ultimate, my sports are essentially individual. Running, skiing, cycling. These are things I do because even if I go out with other people, I can do these things alone.
It’s cycling I’m writing about now.
Two weekends ago, I finished my first Century. 100 miles in the rolling hills north of San Francisco.
This was the farthest I’ve ever ridden and the longest I’ve ever been in the saddle.
Months earlier, my brother called me up with the intention of scaring me. putting the fear of hill climbs in me – goading me to either back down or buck up.
I was more irritated than frightened, but the outcome was the same. Hours spent going uphill.
I am known among my bike-riding friends for descending fast, losing myself to gravity and momentum. It pulls me down, propels me forward. Descents are an out of body experience.
The uphill is completely different.
Do I love the push? The halting, painful climb? The screaming lungs, the protesting thighs?
Moving against gravity, I am aware of my own weight. I feel sweat evaporate on my skin. My mind staggers along its own course, lurching from the color of the asphalt to philosophy to lunch to mistakes to half-forgotten dreams.
I must love it.
Why else would I bother?
Why else would my life be riddled with skin tracks, with thin tires spinning through muddy roads, with scraped knees and skin tight shoes pressing against stone.
The descent isn’t difficult. You just find yourself on the top of a hill and you go.
But the uphill is a hard.
It is Sisyphean. Imagine me happy.
See, it is the process of moving upwards with the full awareness that you are just going to turn around and go up again. Why?
Why do you push?
Why do you go?
“Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” The New York Times reporter asked George Mallory.
“Because it’s there.”
He added, “Everest is the highest mountain in the world, and no man has reached its summit. Its existence is a challenge.”
One year and three months later, Mallory was dead.
I call myself a downhill person. But the downhill is not necessarily why I go up.
I go up because it’s there; its very existence is a challenge.
It’s like this:
You sign up for a century ride having never biked more than 40 miles before. You strap your skis to your back not knowing if there will even be snow. You stand at the door of a new job, a new state, a new face, and you do not know what you’re getting yourself into.
The race is there. The mountain is there. The door, you see, is ajar.
So, you walk through — not in spite of but because you don’t know if you’ll succeed.
You have to try anyway. Because it’s there. Because it’s what you love. It’s Freud’s Eros throwing itself against the walls of your heart.
And you must go.
Near the end of No Exit, the room’s only door flies open, followed by a long silence between the assembled damned. I’ve never seen the play performed, but that’s the stage direction, written in capitals: (THE DOOR FLIES OPEN: a long silence.)
The three characters bicker among themselves. Goading first one, then threatening the next to go through the open door and into the hall.
Here is where Garcin cries: “Hell is other people!”
I think you missed the point, Garcin. And I think, ten years ago when I read No Exit for the first time, that I missed the point as well.
I thought of this on my bicycle, slogging up hill on a 3 and a half hour training ride along the peak to Peak highway. I had hit the spot two thirds of the way through when I was spinning uphill, but my mind was spinning down into the dark bilge of unwelcome thought. This was the place of what-ifs, the who-do-you-think-you-ares, the how-could-yous.
Hell isn’t other people.
Hell is standing in front of an open door — and not walking through it.
Here, now, I whisper:
Hell is an open door. Walk through it.
(Featured image by Dr Josh Auerbach)