“Hell is the other,” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in one of his plays. Some understand this to mean a fundamental inability to connect with other people, but Sartre was describing the consequences of being watched, both literally and metaphorically. Most of our interactions are defined by our awareness of the expectations of other people. These expectations influence not only our actions but also how we perceive ourselves. Simone de Beauvoir had these barriers of expectations in mind when she wrote, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
The gaze of other people limits our authenticity, but when we realize that the claims about our nature and its limitations are artificial, we can begin an effort to distance ourselves from them and create ourselves, as it were.
In the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, immoral actions lead to guilt, which destroys freedom. The characters in Dostoevsky’s works suffer because they are formed by their societies, and are still attached to it, but refuse to accept it. Dostoevsky shows us the hold of societal conditioning on our individuality and the necessary self-deception that follows from it. For his characters, there is only suffering, because they are a bridge between deception and authenticity, which is rebellion.
If we refuse to cross this bridge, if we prioritize an inherent essence ascribed to us by others before our actual existence, then the most important thing we can imagine for our freedom is not authenticity but perfection. But freedom comes from something more than perfection. Perfection is limited. Perfection is the collective expression of a society on what it values the most. But values evolve. There are many things that we used to consider normal that are unthinkable today. To center one’s life around achieving perfection is to limit one’s possibilities and one’s freedom.
Freedom entails something unconditional, so authenticity in itself is incomplete. Freedom is deeply personal, but it is not merely action- or thought-oriented. It is also independent of our personal histories. It is awareness without associations. It is the realization of non-duality. The realization that nothing is merely material, nor is anything completely abstract. In fact, our definitions do not capture nature as it is because that’s not they are meant to do. True freedom is an experience, and not a thought. It is the possibility of imagining the universe beyond our bodies.