A Short Stay in Hell’ Made Me Rethink My Shorter Stay in Non-Hell

'A Short Stay in Hell' by Steven Peck challenged me to rethink my approach to my much shorter stay in non-hell, aka life.


Little Book, Big Impact

I just read the most horrifyingly hope- and meaning-destroying novella. It’s about being stuck in hell. And it made me feel wonderful.

After plowing through it, I put my Kindle down, shook my head, and looked around in a daze. 

Part of my daze was physical: My eyes were dry from not blinking for over an hour. But my daze was also mental. I felt like I was in a silly dream, but simultaneously more awake than ever. 

I’ve experienced similar dazes after watching an especially disturbing Black Mirror episode, coming back to earth from a mushroom trip, narrowly avoiding getting smoked by a bus, or seeing a shooting star. But never this strong. I still feel a positive hangover (hang-under!) a day later, as I write this. 

A Short Stay in Hell

The story that swung a two-by-four to my consciousness is A Short Stay in Hell by Steven Peck. 

It’s a 110-page first-person account of a man named Soren’s first billions of years in hell.

Satan has banished Soren to a library of 410-page books. Each is full of a random sequence of Roman numerical letters and punctuation. Soren’s ticket to heaven is finding the book whose letters happen to be arranged in perfect order to tell the story of his life.

The bad news for Soren?

There are more books in this library than atoms in the universe. 

The good news for Soren?

It’s a finite library! So while Soren’s doomed to spend zillions of years searching, it’s nothing relative to the infinite eternity he’ll enjoy in heaven after. 


Not to give too much away, but Soren’s in that library for so long that his pre-hell life ceases to matter to him. And the book transported me better than any VR headset could into Soren’s shoes to feel it.

So when I returned to my reality, I thought, “Man. This life I’m in is so tiny, short, and meaningless.”

But rather than feel an existential crisis, I experienced existential assurance

First of all, thank God (who, according to the book, is Ahura Mazda, and if you got that wrong in life, you’re going to hell) I’m not in that library yet. Second, I’m free to do whatever I want!

Soren takes this freedom to extremes in his not-quite-eternal hell. For instance, he and a partner he has for only a thousand years spend years “pretending we were dogs, running on all fours and eating only dog food out of a dish, or occasionally gnawing on a meaty bone. Oddly enough, it caught on and several people joined our pack.”

I suppose I could also give method acting as a dog a go for my life path. But I think I can come up with preferable alternatives.

Like what?

What to Do With This Silly Life?

When everything is back on the menu, it’s hard to decide!

The easiest option is to put off the decision. It’s less angsty than searching for the “perfect” answer, which is about as likely as Soren finding his biography.

But there is no wrong answer, either.

A Short Stay in Hell hammered this into my psyche. So I might as well satisfice: stop overthinking, settle on a not-so-bad approach to life, and not look back. 

My Approach to My Short Stay in Not-Hell

This little story and all the ultimately meaningless nonsense I’ve studied and written about over the years clicked together into my satisficing choice:

I’m committing to living a one-of-a-kind story1 about having the unselfishly2 best time I can fighting complacency and delusion3 to pump my life4 full of anti-regrets.5

Gobbledygook? Oh well. It makes sense to me. 

A stupid way to spend life? They’re all stupid. 

At least I’ve decided how I want to fill my 410-page book. As for what exactly the following pages will contain, I’ll figure those details out on the fly. And I’ll write about what happens because I think it’s fun and hope you might get something out of it.

No matter what I choose, it won’t matter. 

And no matter what, I’m better off than Soren. 

So what the hell. 

Zag Separator

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👋 I'm Chris. Everything you read on TheZag.com is my fault. This site is like a gym for your comfort zone, full of challenges to make your status quo sexier. Join my 'Consider This' newsletter for a fun new challenge every 10 days. Try it!

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The Zag shares my adventures off of the boring beaten paths of life and ideas for finding your own unfollowable path.