A Story About Being Nihilistic (And Happy)
When I was a teenager, I thought that I could not die.
Of course, this is explained by our most basic understanding of human biology. Until the age of 25, the female brain is not finished the process of neuronal myelination, which is a fancy way of saying that we’re horrible at predicting the consequences of our actions (fun fact — this process doesn’t solidify until 30 for males).
What this gives us a sense of invincibility. It’s why four times as many 16–19 year olds die in car accidents each year than any other demographic. It’s why young adults binge drink and eat poorly and generally neglect their well-being — believing that nothing can touch them.
Of course, some more rational individuals temper these feelings. They listen to the advice of their elders and eat vegetables and don’t drink their faces off each night. I was not one of those people. I’m still not. But I do remember the point where I realized I could die.
I was 22 years old and someone I loved very much wanted to stop being alive. They came close to making it a reality. Their story is not mine to tell. But the experience shifted something inside of me, which is what I will focus on.
For the first time, death became real to me. It was no longer an abstract concept that happened to our grandparents and strangers on the news. I realized that death could take young people, healthy people, people you loved and were not ready to lose. Suddenly the line between myself and death did not seem like a thousand-meter steel wall, but a thin line. One that could be crossed at any moment, accidentally.
Now for most people, an acquaintanceship with death gives way to caution. Adults gain a sense of responsibility. They eat better, sleep more, increase their vegetable intake. Life becomes more precious when you realize that it is not a guarantee, becomes something you want to nurture. Death’s presence did nothing of the sort for me.
At this point I should explain that I have never been a religious person (despite being raised by a devoutly religious family). I often try to explain this by stating that whatever gene it is that allows humans to make leaps of faith simply skipped over me. I cannot understand what I cannot rationalize. If I could trade in this tendency, I would. But from the time I was a three-year-old child sitting in Sunday school, nothing about organized faith made any sense to me. The dots didn’t add up. The contradictions were too glaring, too real. I couldn’t buy into any of it, no matter how badly I wanted to believe in something — anything — other than what was in front of me.
The first time a University friend explained atheism to me — or, more specifically, what atheism meant to her — I was entranced. Her Grandmother had just died. Her family was wracked with grief. ‘We didn’t spend last Christmas with her,’ they lamented. ‘If only we’d known. If only we’d made more of an effort.’
My friend, punching down bread dough while she recalled the information, concluded ‘Well, she’s dead. Her consciousness has stopped. She doesn’t exist in some spiritual realm where she sits around thinking about how we didn’t spend last Christmas together.
She’s not in pain. So why should we be?’
This was the most satisfying explanation of life after death I’d heard to date. It made sense. Grief, as far as I understood it, is simply an evolutionary reaction to loss. Understanding the pain we’d feel if someone we loved were to die is what keeps us protective over our kin. Protectiveness and in-group cooperation are adaptive traits. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that the afterlife is painful for the ones who are gone. It simply feels that way, because our own pain is so great.
Ultimately, atheism never quite fit me. Atheists tend to worship at the alter of science (at least the ones I grew acquainted with), which in itself felt like an odd form of theism. I don’t believe that science is a perfect tool for understanding everything, simply because it’s limited to the tools that we as humans possess. I’m sure there’s quite a bit we cannot measure. Our minds are so small. Existence is so large.
To truly understand nihilism, the first thing you need to do is put down the massive, bolstering ego that was embedded deeply into you the moment you were born into a human body.
Imagine for a moment that humans are not — gasp — the most important beings on the planet. Imagine that there’s no qualitative difference between yourself and a toad. Imagine that our intelligence is remarkable in comparison to other compilations of matter, perhaps, but that this ultimately says nothing about our intrinsic value.
So we can do math and build skyscrapers. We are also destroying the planet at a faster rate than any other creature that inhabits it. Perhaps our intelligence is not the most adaptable form in the long run.
The ego, of course, begs us to believe otherwise. We intrinsically feel that we’re important, on a very deep level. We trust this feeling. And we ought to — it’s a highly adaptive one. It just may not be telling us the truth.
Now this is the part where I explain that nihilism is not synonymous with misery — a mistake almost everyone makes. A world that we are not at the centre of — one that lacks meaning or purpose or a reason to wake up in the morning — is a wholly depressing concept for many people. We want to be held accountable to something. Our psyches are structured around it.
After all, if there is no divine intervention, no judgement day, no moral code to align ourselves with, things would be empty and chaotic. Would they not?
Well, perhaps. But perhaps not.
Consider the human brain. Whether or not it is connected to something Godly, it is wired to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. It is wired to be cooperative and avoid conflict. It is wired to create a sense of meaning even when a verifiable purpose is absent from its awareness. We would probably not all become hopeless savages who spent their spare time murdering for kicks if there were no afterlife to keep us in line, simply because the average human mind does not enjoy murder. It is a highly psychologically distressing act.
Consider the idea that if theism were absent from our mindsets, we wouldn’t behave all that differently. We’d still practice empathy because it feels good to. We’d still set goals and harbor lofty ambitions because they keep our minds occupied. We’d still be human. We’d just be less self-important about the whole shebang.
Consider the idea that nihilism is not so much a disparate and dismal philosophy, but one that simply requires us to take radical ownership. Here is the mind you have been given. Here is the mind that will die. What you do with it in the meantime is up to you. But you may as well work within its confines.
You may as well laugh at every joke you find funny. You may as well moderate your body so it feels strong. You may as well cooperate with others because it feels better than being in conflict. You may as well manufacture meaning if you want to.
Consider the idea that this is what we’re all already doing.
When you look at it this way, nihilism becomes a little less bleak. An amoral Universe looks a little less like a dark and ominous ink blot and more like a blank canvas. Our minds, filled with color. Our ability to create what feels like magic by bursting ourselves across it.
Consider the idea that joy does not come from alignment with a divine spiritual entity but that it is a direct result of the machines that are our minds. We seek safety and protection and redemption and so we create projections of these concepts to satisfy ourselves. God will save us. Allah will protect us. Our sins will, in some form, be redeemed.
Consider the idea that we do not need redemption.
It feels joyful. And absolutely terrifying.
What we don’t like about nihilism, ultimately, is that it renders us entirely unimportant. We want to be worthy of being watched over. Being judged. Being adored. We are afraid of being out here on our own because we see the world as scary and confusing and dark.
Consider the idea that it’s not.
Consider the idea that the darkness and terror of nothingness is just another projection of our own minds. Perhaps the only thing wrong with our eventual nonexistence is that we’re incapable of fathoming it. Maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe it’s better than this, for all we know.
The nihilistic beliefs I ended up adopting as an adult are no more or no less than that — beliefs. I am not certain there is not a divine order. I have simply identified the philosophy that my mind is most comfortable operating under. At the end of the day, this is all any of us are doing.
And when you begin to look at it this way, it becomes easier to understand that the complete and utter senselessness of the Universe can be, in itself, a reason to wake up in the morning. We are under no divine obligation to make the most of our lives. But we may as well.
Maybe knowing that we’re here for a short time and then nowhere gives us all the more reason to live as hard as we can, as fully as we can, for as long as we can. Maybe it’s less of a deflation for our ego and more of an empowerment.
After all — by some beautiful, random, completely unfathomable chance, your consciousness appeared. And it will disappear.
It means nothing. It is accountable to no one. It is fallible and unpredictable and more complex than you or I could ever hope to understand.
But it is here.
You are here, and so am I.
And whatever it all means, my God. Is it ever something incredible to behold.