Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre concludes his famous play No Exit with the line, “Hell is other people.” Leave it to Mike Schur – the creator of Parks & Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, as well as a writer on The Office, to update Sartre’s philosophy for our modern world.
Easily my favorite sit-com of the last decade was the four-season run of The Good Place. The first season introduced us to Eleanor Shellstrop, a self-proclaimed Arizona trashbag of a human who through an accounting glitch ended up in Heaven (the good place) instead of the Bad Place. She forms friendships with her soulmate Chidi, a moral philosophy professor, Tahani, an Indian philanthropist, and Jason Mendoza, a hair-brained dancer slash minor criminal from Jacksonville, FL.
At the end of the first season, Eleanor figures out that it’s all a lie – The Good Place is actually the Bad Place, designed by arch-demon Michael for these four humans to torture each other. Hell is other people.
After that revelation, the next three seasons of the show ask this important question: is it possible for us to change?
That’s a question vital for us to ask together: is genuine transformation something we can really experience?
This is the goal of every self-help book on the market: here are 7 simple steps to change your habits. Here’s a guide, a diet, a mantra, a mindset that will help you become someone other, something other than what we are.
Is it possible, if we’re an angry person, to become gentle?
Is it possible, if we’re selfish, to become selfless?
Is it possible, if we’re prideful, to become humble and helpful?
Is it possible, if we’re afraid, to become confident?
Is it possible, if we’re evil, to become good?
The Good Place’s surprising answer is yes. Yes, we can become better.
Who we are is not who we must be. For The Good Place, the vehicle of our transformation is other people.
In other words, The Good Place flips Sartre on his head. It’s possible for Other people to be Hell for us, but the opposite is true as well. Other people may hold the key to genuine transformation.