The atheist is my friend Susan Barker, a naturalist and science teacher who has been skeptical about the God stuff since she was five years old. Me, I am an agnostic soaked in Roman Catholicism, rinsed in Episcopalianism and toweled off by Taoism. We are talking about the meaning of life—at least, I am. Susan hates the phrase and points out that while it sounds good, it does nothing to move us forward. Too often, people use their private Search for Meaning to defer action. They wander about in their head, sometimes for years at a stretch, instead of confronting the world around them.
Yep. I do that. But all that speculative musing does feel meaningful to me. It keeps me thinking about what matters (a phrase she does approve). I figure that if I am searching for meaning, I am less likely to tumble into hedonism or overvalue stuff and money or use people for my own ends.
As her guard rail, Susan uses the definition she once read for the Cree word pâstâhowin: “to do something so bad it shatters your future.” “Does this have the potential to shatter my life? Yep, okay, I won’t do it then. You don’t need a preacher or a philosopher to figure that out.”
And with that, we arrive, rather painlessly, at a shared conclusion: we should live (pretentious and woo as this word can sound) intentionally. I still quibble with the Joseph Campbell quote she offers, though: “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
Lovely to feel rapture, Joe, but I really am seeking meaning. It will be the question burned into my deathbed’s mattress. Why the fuck are we here? What is the point? And if there is no point, can we invent one?
Susan nods. “The quote only gets at part of it. But if you start by thinking about which experiences matter, you get to what has meaning.” In other words, I start abstract, and she starts empirical, but we are both looking for the same thing.
A few days after this talk, I read a finely written and reasoned piece by Wendy Syfret, author of The Sunny Nihilist: How a Meaningless Life Can Make You Truly Happy—and feel anything but. This time there is no bar in sight, no easy exploration between friends. Just an argument I start out agreeing with and wind up hating.
“In theory, the pursuit of a meaningful life is noble,” Syfret begins. “But today something’s gone awry and the pursuit of meaning inspires more angst than awe.” She rolls through all the ridiculous ad copy that sells stuff by infusing nonexistent significance. I snort with recognition, feeling superior to the idiots that believe a piece of chocolate can bring inner peace and chia seeds will fix the planet. Then I remember that I once bought Philosophy moisturizer just for the name. And every time I see Writer’s Block on a wine list, I order a glass as prophylactic.
Such silliness adds no thoughtfulness to our material lives. There is a reason all these reels and enewsletters packed with advice about how to live have sent the world into goblin mode. So far, I stand with Syfret. Where I veer off is when she prescribes her solution.
Sunny nihilism is, she explains, a cheerful acceptance of pointlessness. Life has no meaning. We are tiny and insignificant; subtract us, and the universe rolls on without a flicker. Accepting this gives us permission to live in the (forgettable) moment, noticing what we pay attention to (even as we acknowledge how little it matters).
Syfret wants to avoid passive nihilism, a self-obsessed state that grabs on to the commercial bullshit to fill its ideological vacuum. She also wants to avoid Nietzsche’s active nihilism, in which the absence of meaning creates a space we can cram with our own values, a self we can define any way we want.
This is not a relief at all, I jot in the margin. Now we have to infuse our own meaning, which is a lot more stressful than reading about it on a granola box. Syfret is there ahead of me, though: she promises that her middle way of sunny nihilism need not lead to stress or self-absorption. Drop any sense that you matter, or that the causes that consume you matter, and then see how different the world looks, she urges.
I try it. I am reasonably fine—at least for the three minutes my experiment lasts—with not mattering. But my causes? The environment, human rights, animal rights? They still matter quite a lot. Syfret talks about savoring “pointless pleasure” and gives examples: “the smell of fresh basil, an excellent joke, two dogs meeting in the street.” But who grew the basil, and was it from a cutting, and why is the joke is funny (the entire history of human relations is in there somewhere) and have those dogs been loved and looked after? Very little feels random to me, or disconnected. Every atom in this crazy universe partakes of meaning in some way or another.
Syfret’s question is a good one, asked by religions for centuries: “If I’m no longer the centre of my own universe, what takes that space?” But she is assuming that the search for meaning is about putting yourself at the center. Not always, surely? She goes on to suggest, “You might start wondering what you want to last after you’ve gone, and what needs to be protected and treasured.”
In other words, what is meaningful.
She also writes about the glorious sense of awe we feel when confronted with the vastness of the universe, and how thankful we tend to feel “for being a dot in an endless sky…part of this cosmic tapestry, even if just for a meaningless moment.” Does being as tiny as a gnat or a comma or a cell mean being meaningless? I am tired of our culture’s equation of big with successful, substantive, important. Why not gaze through a telescope and think how cool it is to be a pinprick that matters to the whole?
Syfret ends her article by introducing us to the young philosophers embracing nihilism. One, a teenager named Elias Skjoldborg, has done a TEDx talk, so obviously we should pay attention. “If you died right now, it wouldn’t really make a difference in the big picture,” he tells his audience. But how does he know? What if he has just swept aside a young doctor who would have cured cancer? The butterfly effect, the ripple effect, late bloomers, delayed epiphanies—all of that makes it impossible for us to calculate the consequences of our actions. This does not mean they have none.
Skjoldborg goes on to say that if life has no meaning or necessity, then our only directive is to find happiness, perhaps by starting a hobby, helping others, or solving problems. Is nihilism just a collection of chicken-soup advice for a society trying to figure out how to live without religion? The young nihilists might be equating meaning with belief in an afterlife, in some sort of divinely ordained teleology, in a paternalistic Christian God who writes operating instructions on each soul.
Syfret is also trying to counterbalance other forces: consumerism and its manipulations, the angst of competition and relentless insecurity. “Is your job really so important when coupled with the knowledge that even the greatest achievements in human history will eventually be lost to time?”
No, but some jobs are. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s was pretty significant. Nelson Mandela made a few dents. Should we have told them not to sweat it?
And are the greatest achievements in human history lost to time? We have hung on pretty tightly to the wheel. And fire. And language, and the written word, and anesthesia, and indoor plumbing. I am fairly sure Syfret does not want to wave all that aside. She is only, kindly, trying to ease our angst. “The only real impact these earthly concerns have is on what they take you away from,” she continues: “things that may not ‘matter,’ but at least bring you joy.” Which brings us right back to the self we were trying so hard to forget.
She closes by quoting a nihilistic character on BoJack Horseman, a Lab named Mr. Peanutbutter who insists that “The Universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn’t the search for meaning. It’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense and, eventually, you’ll be dead.”
Or you will get a jump start and feel dead already.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.