The Bright Side of Nihilism
"Since discovering I'm worthless my life has felt precious..."
By Wendy Syfret / The Guardian
I'm usually wary of epiphanies, lightbulb moments and sweeping realisations that reorder lives. But walking home one evening earlier this year, my existence shifted with a single passing thought.
I was chronically stressed at work, overwhelmed by expectations, grasping for a sense of achievement or greater purpose and tip-toeing towards full-on exhaustion. Then it hit me: "Who cares? One day I'll be dead and no one will remember me anyway."
I can't explain the crashing sense of relief. It was as if my body dumped its cortisol stores allowing my lungs to fully inflate for the first time in months. Standing on the side of the road I looked at the sky and thought: "I'm just a chunk of meat hurtling through space on a rock. Pointless, futile, meaningless." It was one of the most comforting revelations of my life. I'd discovered nihilism.
This decade it's had a cultural comeback. Visiting the central tenets it's easy to see why. Nietzsche's argument that "Every belief, every considering something true, is necessarily false because there is simply no true world" feels chillingly relevant as we stumble through a "post-truth" reality.
While Nietzsche (and the goths you grew up with) make it all sound like a bummer, Generation Y's and Z's take on things is more upbeat and absurd. Modern nihilism has been honed through memes and Twitter jokes. It manifests as teenagers eating Tide pods, fans begging celebrities to run them down with their cars, and a lot of weird TV shows. Turns out the descent into nothingness can be pretty funny.
In her collection of essays Trick Mirror: reflections on self-delusion, New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino grapples with the culture and conditions of a post-global financial crisis America. In particular, how cults of self-optimisation and identity have left us lost and apathetic. Several reviews used the term nihilistic when discussing the book, referring to both the content and how it made them feel.
But when speaking to her earlier this year, Tolentino offered a warmer take. She admitted she found feelings of insignificance "really galvanising" for her writing, adding: "If we're here for just a blink of the eye, and in general if nothing matters, it feels like [it's] carte blanche to wild the fuck out. To try a lot of things, try your best to do something because the odds are so good that none of it means anything that perversely it makes me feel free to try."
She didn't see purposelessness as a poison seeping into our lives to turn us into the nihilistic baddies from the Big Lebowski. Rather she argued it had the potential to define and soothe a pained generation: "I think it's the millennial condition. It's this kind of ecstatic, fundamentally ironic but also incredibly sincere, unhinged quality."
Last year, on opposite sides of the world, two high schoolers presented TEDx talks about nihilism. Elias Skjoldborg, a junior at Hanwood Union high school in Vermont, took the stage to deliver his case for optimistic nihilism. It was aptly subtitled "Or how to be a happy emo".
During his presentation he reminded the audience of fellow adolescents that: "If you died right now it wouldn't make a difference, big picture. If you'd never been born no one would care."
That's the good news. "That life has no meaning is not a reason ... to be sad," he said. If our lives are needless then the only directive we have is to figure out how to find happiness in our momentary blip of consciousness. For instance, he helpfully suggested his audience get hobbies, help others, solve problems rather than creating them, and just try their best.
Subverting the stereotype of a teen nihilist, Siddharth Gupta presented his talk "Confessions of an existential nihilist" while wearing a pink button-down shirt. The senior at Kodiakanal International school in India confessed that his belief life was worthless gave him the "opportunity to find meaning in all that I do".
Unburdened by a larger mission, he was free to seek out his own: "I still believe there is no inherent meaning in life, but I now believe that because of this, there is no reason not to give everything I have and try to create my own meaning in this most likely hollow existence."
One of the many criticisms of nihilism is that it opens the door to unchecked selfishness. It's a logical next step if you think there's nothing to gain from life except personal happiness and pleasure. Yet for the people who have absorbed this message, the trend isn't towards greed, but community-mindedness.
Skjoldborg urged his audience to solve problems. Gupta sought to build his own meaning. Tolentino's whole book is an argument against self-serving, neoliberal systems that crush people lower down the economic ladder than you.
In the months since discovering I'm worthless, my life has felt more precious. When your existence is pointless, you shift focus to things that have more longevity than your own ego. I've become more engaged in environmental issues, my family and the community at large. Once you make peace with just being a lump of meat on a rock, you can stop stressing and appreciate the rock itself.
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