These days I find myself at a certain crossroad, a culminating point in my life so to speak.
As soon as you finally graduate from college, after the initial thrill of achieving presumed freedom after years of education – freedom from exams, freedom from having all your spare time organized by other people’s requests and agendas, you find yourself facing a decision of a career to follow and the lifestyle that will inevitably come with it. You realize that you are facing another 40 or more years of your life spent as a sort of slave. Whether it is for someone else or your own business, you’re never ultimately free.
As these difficult decisions come, maybe you’re smart and lucky enough to find something that you’re truly enjoying and never grow bored or tired with it. Perhaps, you set up a certain system for yourself where you change careers periodically to keep yourself active and learning and prevent yourself from getting bored. But at a certain point you will end up asking yourself: why? Why am I doing what I’m doing? Where am I headed? Once death comes and touches the lives of all the people that ever knew me as well, will anything that I have created in this life survive? Will anyone care so much as to give me a thought in the midst of their full, busy lives?
In Chuck Palahniuk’s novel “Survivor”, the main character, Tender Branson says: “I just want some proof that death isn’t the end. Even if crazed zombies grabbed me in some dark hall one night, even if they tore me apart, at least that wouldn’t be the absolute end. There would be some comfort in that.” At the face of everyone he knew as a child committing suicide, he finds himself confused and devoid of meaning or a goal. He is terrified of the idea of ceasing to exist, receding into nothingness.
Many people find their relief in religion. In the belief that God is awaiting them on the other side, together with their deceased relatives. Perhaps it is so that the people who find themselves scared and without a clear direction or meaning are in majority nihilists, holding on to the life on Earth, certain that it’s the one and only important place in the universe, selfish enough to think that the human race is the only one that matters, the only one in power in this world, the only world that exists.
What gives us a meaning at least for a little while, at least a tiny distraction from the fear of emptiness, is the illusion of progress. Taking action, getting yourself occupied. Trying new things to get a kick of adrenaline, of freshness. Still, as Tender Branson describes it, “You’re going up and up and up and not getting anywhere. It’s the illusion of progress. What you want to think is your salvation. What people forget is a journey to nowhere starts with a single step.”
The question is, do we really need to get somewhere? Do we need some deity to save us? Do we need a goal to be truly happy? Do we really need to be remembered by the next generations? Will that even matter after we’re not here any longer?
How will it feel not to be anyway? Will our consciousness survive in some form of energy? Perhaps not existing will bring some sort of relief. Perhaps upon death we will mix with the whole Earth as one gigantic entity.
As characters of Donna Tartt’s “Secret History” notice, “Any action, in the fullness of time, sinks to nothingness.” Whether we want to accept it or not, each of us is a mere drop in the ocean of history of human race.
But does that really mean we’re doomed? Does nihilism have to exclude enjoyment of life or happiness? I believe there are two ways we can go about this.
Firstly, we can bet on progress. Tender Branson says that at some point “You realize that our mistrust of the future makes it hard to give up the past. We can’t give up our concept of who we were… Our way of getting nostalgic for what we just threw in the trash, it’s all because we’re afraid to evolve. Grow, change, lose weight, reinvent ourselves. Adapt.” Constant movement keeps us alive and setting up small goals to strive for gives us reasons to do something and the enjoyment of achieving some kind of aim, a meaning. It is the dwelling on the past, this inborn tendency to nostalgia, that often gets us lost in the depressive moods.
Secondly, we can bet on moments. If we learn to be fully mindful in each moment, we can enjoy it more fully, with all our senses. This also implies giving up on the constant reminiscing of the past. Whatever it was, we can’t do much about what has already happened. Because of that, dwelling on it makes us feel helpless and miserable. If we find happiness in small things, even if it’s a coffee break at work, we can feel more free, liberated of the weight of the past. We can feel the bliss in its truest form. If the issue is that you hate your job in which, after all, you spend a huge amount of your life, you might want to either change it or re-evaluate it. I think that the problem often lies in our approach. We associate the word “job” with something negative, something we “have to” or are “forced to” do. But if you try to look at it from a slightly different perspective, and look closely at the tasks you are asked to perform, I am sure you will find that you actually enjoy at least a few of them.
“People don’t want their lives fixed. Nobody wants their problems solved. Their dramas. Their distractions. Their stories resolved. Their messes cleaned up. Because what would they have left? Just the big scary unknown.” (Chuck Palahniuk, “Survivor“) Perhaps we keep on searching for answers, ready-made recipes for life, but, in the end, deep inside, we don’t want to implement them. We are scared of change, of the unknown, as much as we are afraid of nothingness or emptiness. I believe this is where all the problems begin. It’s this inexplicable fear that we all seem to share, that at times can even make us cease to enjoy our hobbies or previous thrills.
“Why does that obstinate little voice in our heads torment us so? Could it be because it reminds us that we are alive, of our mortality, of our individual souls – which, after all, we are too afraid to surrender but yet make us feel more miserable than any other thing?” (Donna Tartt, “Secret History“)
The mindset free of fear and attachment to the past might be just what we need in these difficult times. If we can make a decision to release ourselves, we will find that even in nihilism we can find happiness…