Nihilistic thinking is a dangerous, loathsome, and inaccurate mode of being. Rejecting it opens a door for growth through struggle and, ultimately, hope.
By Elijah Huntington
You’re going 70 down I-90 and it’s midnight. After a long drive, you are just trying to get home to your bed. You can’t see more than a hundred or so feet ahead of you, which at 70 miles per hour, is not very far. Suddenly the metal guard meant to prevent you from going off the road takes shape in your head lights. Uncontrollably – almost instinctively – a thought streams though your exhausted and foggy mind. What if I just swerved? Following this disturbing thought, you imagine the obviously horrific collision that answers your question in a once again uncontrollable manner. Before you can watch your own imagined demise play through to the end, you shake the thought from your head, and ask yourself why the hell you thought of that. All of this happens within two seconds and then you are back to driving steadily home.
“L’appel du vide,” or the call of the void, is that split second when you have self-destructive thoughts, such as swerving into the railing. Sudden and unexpected, these thoughts are more common than most people realize, however, they are rarely acted upon. Often, this “call” is where nihilistic thinking starts and where the inspiration for nihilism as a philosophy began. By nihilism, I mean the supposed realization that all life and anything it encompasses is ultimately meaningless. If you really consider it, it seems frighteningly logical, as if there is no argument that withstands it. This thinking may not have an obvious correlation at first, but watch how differently this scenario can go.
After finishing the imaginary scene where you die in a fiery accident, you wonder what would happen in the world when you are gone. First, start with how it effects your friends and family and then broaden that to your community. Then to your city and area as a whole and before you even get to the state level – let alone country level – you reach a dark conclusion. You realize, this world wouldn’t even notice I’m gone. The wider your look, the less and less impact your supposed demise seems to have. Now consider how time will also degrade any effect your life, or death, has. Time has that same odd, linear effect as widening the area you look at, meaning, your life has less and less impact over time. One hundred years after the crash, there is little chance anyone would be around to remember you. One thousand years after the crash, your entire community and family are not even be a distant memory. Ten thousand years? Who knows if history will even remember the period in which you existed. You think about all this while now driving 90 down I-90.
Now, I know this scenario sounds deeply disturbing and depressing. That is the point though, this is what you call “nihilism.” It is dim, bleak, and feeds that guttural feeling of dismay made up of anxiety and general disillusionment with the world. But there is good news. It is wrong. Wrong on the physical, philosophical, biological, psychological, and social levels. And to be wrong on so many levels of analysis, such an ideology must be fundamentally flawed.
Exploring these flaws and counterarguments, the easiest and certainly most common way to shut down nihilism is through faith. If you believe in an afterlife, specifically in one that is affected by the way you live your life, it means that every single thing you do has a meaning. If there is a God watching over you, judging your actions and deciding your fate, then you can clearly see the meaning in being. But what if you don’t believe or you are simply in doubt? Can life really have any meaning if there is not a supernatural higher order under which you must conduct yourself?
First, let’s go back to the different lenses: the physical, philosophical, biological, psychological and social levels. Starting on the psychological level, know that it is all a matter of perspective. Humble yourself before hurdling down the well of ultimate meaninglessness because the thing about meaninglessness being ultimate is that you truly have to cast away everything in existence. Take everything you know, everything anybody else knows, and every single thing that no one yet understands or has even conceptualized, and then throw it in the garbage. The endless expanse of potential that exists in the universe as well as all the best that the world has to offer, and you personally must throw it in the metaphorical garbage can. That is the only way you can truly subscribe to the nihilistic philosophy. By putting yourself into the position of Judge of All Existence and simultaneously deeming it unworthy of existing. You may be confident in yourself, but it takes extreme arrogance or unwittingness beyond belief – or both – to conform to that notion.
The arrogant extremists who center their lives on the purely nihilistic and pessimistic thinking not only make their lives miserable, but those around them as well. Realizing that nothing you do matters leads down two paths, you either become suicidal and deeply depressed, or you believe that your actions are now inconsequential. After all, if nothing you do matters in this life or past it, why would murder, robbery, or any crime mean anything at all? The Columbine shooters were nihilists of this sort: self-serving, egotistical, and evil. They deemed human life unfit for existence and sought to unbalance the order that society had created as much as they possibly could. All because they believed human existence to be ultimately meaningless and even detrimental. This is part of where nihilism fails miserably socially.
Here is a lovely aphorism from Wayne Dryer, “No one knows enough to be a pessimist.” Part of his “5 Lessons to Live By,” this is the polar opposite of nihilistic thinking. By living his life this way, Dryer claims you can be impervious to disappointment, find happiness in the smallest of outcomes, and experience the world in fuller way. I really cannot get behind this because while it is true you can be optimistic about almost anything in life (just like how you can be a pessimistic/nihilistic about almost anything in life), it is not always helpful. Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, a holocaust survivor, tried to warn others of this in his book Man’s Search For Meaning. “Nearly everyone in our transport lived under the illusion that he would be reprieved, that everything would yet be well.” (11). As the cattle cars rolled to a stop outside of the concentration camp, practically all f the new prisoners were so dreadfully unprepared and naïve that they did nothing to fight back.
Even before they were loaded into transports, their hopeful, passive, naïve attitudes allowed them to be tricked by the S.S., their homes turned into Ghettos, their possessions, and eventually lives to be taken. You become vulnerable when you are not expecting of life’s tragedies. “There’s gonna be things that come along, that flatten you so hard you won’t believe it, and you won’t be happy then. And so, in those situations, under that belief… why even live? Life isn’t to be happy, if you are happy you are fortunate and should enjoy it, but that isn’t life’s meaning when there can be no happiness.” (Peterson).
There is a balance. You cannot be overly critical, but you also cannot be unendingly optimistic because both will produce catastrophes of their own sort. It may seem self-explanatory, but achieving that balance is much harder than what is immediately believed. You must try to be realistically optimistic. Though the balance seemingly needs to be tipped more to the side of optimism, you must be willing to recognize the malevolence that may be hiding out of sight. In other words, search for the good but be cautious because life can be tragic.
Let’s continue with the social failings of the nihilistic philosophy. Many people quickly feel insignificant and trapped in the vast sea of humanity because of the exact thinking explained earlier, that having a real impact on the world is impossible. With so many people on the planet, there is no significance to a single life. Nothing changes if one person in a line seven billion is removed after all. Again, perception is key in fighting this proposition because there exists a conceptual problem within the metaphor. Don’t think of it as a line seven billion people long – it isn’t.
People are networked now more than ever before. Societies are linked globally in numerous massive systems and because of that, you have the potential to cause waves without knowing. If social influence is looked at as if it is an AI network, you find that the misbehavior of a single node causes changes throughout the entire system. Just like an AI networked node, you aren’t alone, your existence is linked to all others. If, in your life, you can deeply affect 1,000 people, those people will in turn affect 1,000 more people each. This means that you are one person away from having an effect on 1,000,000 other people, and two people away from affecting 1,000,000,000. (Peterson). And while some of those people overlap, you see how quickly your influence spreads without your direct intervention. This will happen whether it is good, bad, intended or unintended so you must be conscious of how you treat yourself and others.
But what about the terrible suffering that exists within being? Can that really be justified? Disease, famine, violence, and war, how can any of that make sense in this world? I am not about to justify any of those terrors, but please consider this proposition: The price for being is suffering. This is a Buddhist teaching. Here is where I consider nihilistic thinking fails on the philosophical level, it just doesn’t stand up to other ideologies. Suffering does not have to be a detriment to existence, it is not supporting evidence for the futility of life. Instead, it is a fact of nature and a tool for the betterment of being. Dr. Frankl’s belief on suffering is that “… not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. If there is meaning in life at all, then there is meaning in death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.” (67).
Suffering can be meaningful. And before you shut this argument out because you don’t consider my life experiences substantial enough to make this claim, know that this conclusion is inferred in part from Dr. Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor who suffered starvation, sickness, the loss of his young wife and parents by gassing, witnessed the suicide of dozens of his comrades, was beaten in the icy winters of Europe while digging barefoot in the frozen earth, and suffered years in various concentration camps. It was during this time that Dr. Frankl developed the basis for a form of psychoanalysis known as Logotherapy. He designed it to help people struggling to cope with the unrelenting suffering of life to focus on the potential for betterment that remains just as constant – if not more – than the suffering. He realized and tried to help other realize that – while suffering is an irremovable fact of life – one can be made better due to that pain. He teaches that it is your choice whether your trauma cripples you or makes you stronger, that there is always something worth living for, no matter how small. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that “he who has a strong enough how can bear any why.” (qt. “Maxims”) It doesn’t really matter what your “why” is, just that it motivates you through whatever struggle you are facing.
Dr. Frankl developed the basis of logotherapy out of want to save his comrades from their own sense of hopelessness. “… even in the sixth winter of the Second World War, our situation was not the most terrible we could think of. I said that each of us had to ask ourselves what irreplaceable losses he had suffered… I speculated that for most of them these losses had been relatively few.” (81). That last question, what has been irreplaceably lost, is most striking. These prisoners of death and labor camps, stripped of everything in the world that man can possibly hold dear, had apparently suffered relatively few irreplaceable losses. There does not exist a more tormented lot than the victims of the Holocaust, and yet, Dr. Frankl, in the middle of an air raid, could see that there existed a future for all of these men if they did not lose themselves.
The nihilistic take on suffering being meaningless also highlights how the philosophy is wrong biologically and physically. Suffering, as shown by both Dr. Frankl and many other survivors, makes you stronger. Dostoevsky famously said, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings,” and I believe he meant he was scared he would stop learning and growing from his struggles, that he might one day hit a limit. The wonderful aspect of that is, we have absolutely no idea what the limit on human growth is. The tension that comes from the conflict of suffering constantly unlocks new mental strength.
No one is fulfilled by sitting around complacently, you get no emotional reward from doing nothing. This is an idea shared by Judeo-Christian as well as Buddhists beliefs and it is essentially that the proper way to deal with the suffering of life is to face it and persevere. The reasoning for this differs between the religions, but the basic concept can apply anywhere: You only become stronger by overcoming challenge. “The purpose of life, as far as I can tell… is to find a mode of being that’s so meaningful that the fact that life is suffering is no longer relevant.” (Peterson). It is the same as Nietzche’s proposition of a strong enough “why,” if you find something that provides you with enough purpose, suffering for it won’t matter. Like a spy being tortured by life, you can’t give surrender that which is most important to you.
One of the other extensions of the nihilistic proposition is that, since everything means nothing in the end, we are all simply floating around, doing random and pointless actions with no guide. Once again, let me propose a counter argument. “You are the mechanism by which the potential that constitutes the future manifests itself as the reality that constitutes the present and past.” (Peterson). It isn’t that what you do means nothing, it is that this all means nothing if you do not do anything. And you can’t just do “nothing,” you exist and therefore you are acting. If you do not take advantage of the potential put forth ahead of you, that is what will be ultimately pointless. This also ties back to how all of humanity is intimately networked, and I believe that you create meaning when you use the potential of your existence for the betterment of those people connected to you.
In conclusion, the nihilistic philosophy is not only an entirely unhelpful model for structuring thought, it is flat out wrong. Wrong on multiple levels of analysis, and because of that, I also would like to point out that if it were to be proposed as a scientific theory it would be discredited and scrapped. So, if you trust in religion, your own humility, or even just the scientific method, you can see that nihilistic thinking is a dangerous, loathsome, and inaccurate mode of being. Do not be afraid to struggle, it is both what makes you stronger and unavoidable anyways. Try to view the world with hope, but never lose sight of the potential for evil. And lastly, there will always be a way to make the world around you a better place.
- “Clarysville Bridge on a Winter Morning” by Javcon117* on Flickr.
- Dryer, Wayne. “5 Lessons To Live By.” YouTube, Fearless Soul, 15 Mar. 2018, youtu.be/dOkNkcZ_THA?t=365.
- Frankl, V. E. Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon, 2006.
- “Maxims and Arrows.” Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer, by
- Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Lexido, 1889, pp. 2–3, http://www.lexido.com/EBOOK_TEXTS/TWILIGHT_OF_THE_IDOLS_.aspx?S=2.
- Peterson, Jordan B. “Responsibility Is the Key to Meaning.” Spotify, The Jordan B. Peterson Podcast Network, 19 Sept. 2019, open.spotify.com/episode/6kOFhimKKWRwQkETAQPwwf?si=tHZwp1-cSS64XjflPIdPpw.