There’s a famous line in Milton’s Paradise Lost where Lucifer says:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.
Taken literally it illustrates the devil’s pride and bitterness at having been cast down from Heaven. He would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven.
We’re not so different. Even when it makes us miserable we prefer to be in control, to feel responsible for our own suffering.
At some point in our early lives we encounter circumstances of life that conflict with our desires. For some people it comes in the context of terrible abuse or trauma, while for others it comes in “normal” aspects of life like having to move away from friends and relatives, or everyday battles of will with parents and authority figures.
The key point is that we find ourselves conscious of having desires – a will – that conflicts with external reality.
Our desires and the external world are both equally real. But for some reason at the point of conflict between the two, our perspective changes and we begin to feel responsible for one aspect of reality – our desires or will – and not for the reality of the external world.
On one level it seems obvious that in a conflict between our internal desires and the external world we should be responsible for the part that exists inside our own head.
But we don’t create our desires, nor do we choose them. We are not responsible for them in the sense of being their author. So why do we feel responsible? We may feel we are in control of our own will, but this just begs the question.
Our sense of responsibility flows into other psychological states. We find ourselves trying to reject unsavory aspects of external reality. We seek to compensate for our unfulfilled desires. We sulk. We get angry at the world for failing us, and at ourselves for failing to get on in the world.
Above all, we feel that the conflict is ultimately our fault. Not that we necessarily caused the conditions of the world that so disappoint us, but that it seems we ought to have within ourselves the power to overcome or resolve this conflict.
Again, Milton has Lucifer say:
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.
So we feel, and so we are often told by others, especially by parents and authority figures who would simply (and understandably) prefer that we not protest or complain.
We believe it is our fault, our failing, to have desired something we cannot control. We believe that our desires are, or should be, within our control. Alternatively, we believe it is our own fault that our desires lack efficacy in the external world.
This belief in our own failing burdens us with a sense of responsibility, faulty responsibility for our own unhappiness and dissatisfaction in life.
Thus we reign in hell.
The paradox is that the worst of the suffering comes from thinking that we are responsible, that it is somehow up to us to correct our faults, to achieve righteousness, to make ourselves right again through our own efforts.
That’s what reigning in hell means, I think. In the moment of conflict between our desires and the external world, we take command, responsibility, and therefore blame for the whole conflict.
At the same time we fear to surrender this responsibility and illusion of control because it keeps alive in us the hope of repairing the situation. We own our fault, in the hope that we may repair it.
That’s why, like Milton’s devil, we prefer to reign in hell. Our reign is hell, you might say, because it is a delusion, it doesn’t exist, we are not in control and we are not responsible. But admitting we are not in control is too frightening. It would feel like dying, the death of the illusory self who rules over our faulty existence.
It would mean accepting our reality totally, both the external world and the desires and will that conflicted with it in the first place.
It sounds a bit like “Whosoever shall seek to save his life, shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose it, shall preserve it.”