Giving Meaning to Nothing
As the year quickly came to a close, I found myself thinking a lot about endings. As I wrote about most recently, I've had a lot of endings lately. As a result, there are new fissures in my mind. I finished Atul Gawande's Being Mortal not too long ago, a book on palliative care and how medicine wrestles with terminal patients. It's filled with stories of the dying: dying with tragedy, dying with fear, and dying with grace. After publishing my last essay, I spoke with a number of people - many of whom I haven't connected with in several years - about our shared experiences of loss and transition. They've told me tales of abuse, of abandonment, of finally letting go when the pressure made their souls crack. This time of year naturally prompts us to reflect; it's just that for me, this time around, my thoughts feel heavier having recently been soaked with endings, stained in the spots where tears have dried up, and lined with the scars left over from healing. My mind is heavier with these thoughts like the lacquerware of kintsugi, the Japanese art that mends broken pottery with powdered gold to highlight where the fractures have been. This time around, I find myself plagued with the knowledge of one of the few certain facts of life: that everything ends.
I want to write about how to live with the knowledge of endings.
Truth and Nihilism
My favorite interviewer, Krista Tippett, always asks her guests at the beginning of each session, "What is the religious or spiritual background of your childhood?" I have this recurring nightmare that one day I'll have cause to be interviewed by her, and I'll give a shallow and embarrassingly pedantic answer to this question. I'm not a strictly religious person, but I am a child of philosophy. At an early age, I remember many of my first spiritual musings would orbit around nihilism.
I remember when I was younger, laying in my bed at night and staring at the ceiling, I would envision the vastness of the world and of time and thinking about how insignificant it would make me feel. I would think about how old I am, where I stood in the normal lifespan of a human being, and how many breaths that would mean I had left. I would think about what I could accomplish, my greatest ambitions and dreams and desires, and how quickly they would be forgotten in time, like raindrops in a roaring river. I would remind myself of my religious skepticism, that chances are, there really was just stark nothingness after death. I would think about my family, my friends, my great loves in life, and how we would all return to the earth and ash and dust. I would think about the entirety of human history, our wars, our triumphs, our future endeavours, and what an infinitesimally small sliver of time we would occupy in the vastness of the cosmos. I would think about the sheer size of our world, and what a tiny speck we must be in comparison to the countless other planets among stars among galaxies among clusters among superclusters and beyond. I would think about heat death, and how eventually, space itself would tear the stars apart until everything cooled into a frozen blackness. Everything will end. Nothing will be remembered. All things will stop. It made me feel small, meaningless, and most of all, powerless. I remember I would tremble underneath my blanket and the sheets just pondering these ideas. Truth would lead me to nihilism into the long night that would make me shake with angst.
It's their ineffable truth that makes these thoughts so unsettling. There are few things in life that are so certain, and the things that are feel profoundly and unfortunately perilous and merciless. I know that all things will end and so perhaps all things are even meaningless. Yet, I want so desperately for there to be meaning in my life. The knowledge of nihilism is so fixed, so sure, that at best I can only look in the other direction for relief, temporarily happy in my attempt at finding purpose anyways. I can tuck my thoughts about endings away into the darker corners of my mind, and instead focus on what is in front of me, right here, right now, where the light briefly but brightly shines. I can busy myself with work, with love, with life's little chores that carry me from one place to another, and countless other distractions...but the truth of nihilism is omnipresent. It's always with me, in the back of my mind, no matter how well I disguise it, ignore it, and smother it. I want so desperately for nihilism not to be true, yet it's always there, dormant, stalking me.
I mulled those thoughts then, and I do now. What I think is so important about these thoughts is how they come packaged with modern living. We live in an increasingly secular, starkly realist, and information-soaked world. There is an almost brutal commitment to truth, to science, to honesty and an evacuation of anything that might seem mystical, traditional, or overly sentimental. Yet, the ultimate price for this commitment to realism is often a fast-track ticket to nihilism. It's the crisis of our generation and so many before us: to live a life where we try our best to be serious with ourselves and find meaning but in a universe without God, ensnared with human folly, and probable oblivion. Mortality, temporality, and emptiness aren't things people like to think about on a regular basis, if at all. It makes people anxious, sometimes to the point of creating unforgiving, quaking fear in someone's heart as it has with mine. But right now, I'm sitting next to these thoughts, not with alarm, but with a curiosity about how to live with them.
What if we decided not to turn away from this truth? Like so many modern people who consider themselves secular, committed to truth and science, and as comprehensively honest to themselves as possible, why do I make an exception of nihilism and flee? Why is it that when we are faced with thinking about annihilation that we are terrified to look at it in the eye, as if we would turn into stone at first sight? What if, instead of running from this idea, we could embrace it?
What if there's something beautiful beyond the fear?
A Brief Sample of Existentialism
When I first started studying philosophy and literature in school, some of the first few texts I came across were by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The problem of nihilism isn't a new one, but it is newly relevant in today's fast-paced, secularizing, and infinitely possible world. Existentialism has been the response of the last few centuries' philosophical thinkers: not just Sartre and Camus but also commonly Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Dostoyevsky. It's the tradition of philosophical inquiry into the human condition in the face of an ostensibly meaningless world: how do human beings find meaning in a universe that appears cold and indifferent to our dramas? It's where the term "existential crisis" comes from: the period(s) of life where one is confronted with the task of assigning purpose or value to their being. What do these thinkers say about nihilism? How do they confront this truth?
Sartre, in short, says that if the universe is not given any intrinsic meaning, it is our job to give it. If the universe has no inherent purpose, then there are no rules, no values, no guidelines to follow. We are free...frighteningly free. We alone hold all the responsibility of giving our lives meaning. Sartre proclaims that we must live our lives authentically. That is, with so much freedom granted by the truth of nihilism, we must avoid acting in mauvaise foi or "bad faith", mindlessly doing the default, automatic thing that society, governments, or religions may prescribe us. In the absence of any given meaning to the universe, we are wholly free to determine its meaning.
Camus, though he rejected the label "existentialist", nonetheless thought and wrote about the human condition in the face of nihilism, perhaps most provocatively amongst his peers. In his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, he begins:
In this same essay, Camus provides a familiar conclusion that serious philosophical inquiry necessarily leads to a meaningless world, one that is indifferent to the human condition, absent of any a priori value, and ultimately vacuous. So it follows that when presented with nihilism, someone might naturally contemplate suicide. Why should someone live if there is no meaning to life? This conundrum is called the Absurd, the conflict between the human tendency to seek meaning in life and the inevitable failure to find any. Like Sartre, Camus also offers that human beings can provide their own lives meaning, but he differs in that he believes any meaning must be personal and ultimately futile in the face of the Absurd. In other words, Camus tells us that in spite of a cold world, we must persevere. He invokes the image of Sisyphus, who is condemned to eternal punishment pushing a boulder up a steep mountain, only to have it roll down again for him to repeat the arduous task. We are like Sisyphus, fighting against the gravity of truth and nihilism by living with self-proclaimed purpose, only to be defeated endlessly, again and again. Ultimately, Camus says we must imagine Sisyphus happy, that though his efforts - like ours - are doomed in the grand scheme of things, he must smile, as we must enjoy ourselves in spite of the Absurd and live life fully. We should relish life, Camus says: its immense pleasures, its ordinary, and its spectacular. Camus' vision of the human condition in spite of nihilism is a refreshing one, and a vision I've adored since discovering him nearly a decade ago.
I love the existentialists. They laid the groundwork for how to live a modern life, and forged a path forward that doesn't betray a commitment to serious thought. Yet, to me, these answers still feel lacking in the context of our modern world. So yes, the universe is indifferent and we should live in spite of the fact. So yes, we may prescribe our own meaning, whether that meaning is true like it might be for Sartre, or simply an exercise like it may seem for Camus. But how should we live? The existentialists offer that we should live authentically, sometimes with celebration, because nihilism offers us freedom, opportunity, and urgency. Yet, something about these traditional thoughts lead me to faint whispers of hedonism, selfishness, and indulgence that I know portends personal ruin. Something about these responses still suggest a wholesale rejection of millenia of spiritual teachings, an apathy towards human injustice, and the rightful position of some lingering bleakness. Something about these answers feels...unforgiving. The offers of our traditional existential thinkers leave me warmer than the pitiless zero of nihilism, but still not warm enough to slacken my mind's grip on my heart. There needs to be something more than just "not-nothing". Positively, what should we do?
So here's my own take. Like Camus, I, too, offer that the only serious philosophical problem is suicide, but framed differently: what if we were granted practical immortality? Given the opportunity to live as long as we would like, without the philosophical trappings of crippling old age or other similar technicalities, how should we conduct ourselves in an indifferent universe? I offer that you'd want to fulfill yourself, to become as authentically you as you could until you would want to commit suicide, when you have lived life so fully such that you'd neither need nor want any more life to live. How could you disappear completely into oblivion, happily, having done and experienced all that you wanted? This is how I think we should behave even without the prospect of immortality, of meaning, or of answers.
I offer that to live truthfully in a godless world, you need to grapple with the fact that we are just matter, yet rejoice in the knowledge that we are deeply interconnected matter, that we are all made of the same stuff forged in the cores of exploding stars billions of years ago and have a shared ancestry with all things, living and dead, before and after us. I offer that to happily leave behind a meaningless life, you live it compassionately rather than greedily, knowing that joy is in giving and being in the service of others, not in the fleeting comforts of mindless bacchanals. I offer that to happily fade into oblivion, you tend to and savor your relationships rather than indulge yourself at the expense of others, because almost any pleasure alone pales in comparison with the vitality of shared experience. I offer that to give yourself purpose in the face of the Absurd, you become your very best potential self and know that being a miniature of you at the point of annihilation is an existential disappointment. I offer that to run the full course of life, you should mine for gems of great wisdom in as many old religions, philosophies, and cultures, because they can surprise you if you put aside your stubborn skepticism. I offer that to die happy, you acknowledge the truth of how positive the human experience is and can be on the whole, rather than focus myopically on the dark, the disheartening, and the impoverished facts of our universe.
In less lofty words, I'm asking all of us to stay positive, in spite of, because of, and in company of all the inevitable endings of life. All things end. Relationships end, whether they are summer flings that are doomed as the autumn comes, or decades-long marriages when our bodies finally give out; what is important is that you've had them and enjoyed them. So, pursue them. Careers end, whether they are in the small in helping somebody find the right shoes, or grand like those of tycoons who shape the world like clay; what is important is that you find your calling in your work. So, pursue your passions.
This is where I've arrived in thinking a lot about endings around this time of year, and it reminds me of how I should relish and pursue what comes my way before the endings arrive knocking on my door. In short, a serious philosophical investigation coupled with a commitment to secularism, science, and modern thinking inevitably leads us into nihilism, but I'm offering a worldview that isn't as bleak as that conclusion may first appear. I think it is empowering to be responsible for giving your life meaning, in a way that is not "backed by" traditional systems of value. A godless world can still be an awesomely beautiful one. A commitment to secularism charges us with the merry task of discovering our own purpose. A commitment to science as a way the world works can still be enriched by the religious wisdom of how to live a good life. A life that ends in oblivion is the only kind of life worth living. In other essays, I like to write about the many dimensions of this positivity in spite of these endings, like facets of a diamond that represents the only modern way I know how to live. As I finish this particular essay, I'm reminded of a beautiful poem I heard read today by Nikki Giovanni:
I, too, hope I die warmed by the life that I tried to live. I hope, on the path to oblivion, we all do.