Updated: Dec 10, 2020
When I was a teenager, I became convinced there was no meaning in the world. I’ve done a lot of thinking since, but that basic insight hasn’t changed. What has changed is the way I feel about it. In this week's episode of Re-Enchantment, I speak with Ansley Sawyer about her life, her adventures, and her positive nihilism. While "positive nihilism" seems like an oxymoron, in my own experience I've found positive nihilism to be a powerful way of confronting the abject hardships of the world. Regular old nihilism is a philosophical view, or family of views, that’s typically associated with negation of one or more types of value. It may be that there is no ultimate morality; that there is nothing that exists beyond the material world; that human life, emotion, and existence is fundamentally meaninglessness. It’s a bitter pill, but with the advent of a materialistic scientific paradigm, more and more people feel they have to swallow it. This is what philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche referred to as the “crisis of meaning,” — the widespread advent of nihilism. But there’s another side of nihilism—or rather, another attitude you could take toward it. If nothing ultimately matters, we are free to do anything. Our social obligations, moral molds, and mental hangups dissolve. You can either take that liberation and dive into anarchy and hedonism or you take it and run the other way: toward authenticity — completely free to be what we are, not what we "must" be. I believe positive nihilism is a transmutation of the original philosophy. Nihilism's ideas become an affirmation of life rather than a negation of it. David Hume, the English philosopher, serves as a good model for this. An atheist and committed skeptic, Hume was pessimistic about the prospect that humanity had an overarching purpose in this universe. Despite the his philosophical stance, he was famously cheery. When the writer James Boswell came to visit him on his deathbed, he was surprised to find at how well-prepared Hume seemed to be: telling jokes, playing cards, conversing with friends. Adam Smith, among Hume’s closest friend, wrote a controversial letter in which he said Hume, an unbeliever, came “as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.” I believe positive nihilism can be another route—ironically enough—to a type of sainthood. A kind of sainthood that is simultaneously devoid of God and yet embodies the very characteristics we expect to see in the selfless, tranquil, and often highly unorthodox lives of great religious figures. If you accept the basic principles of moral and existential nihilism, your first realization may be that you're left with nothing. But that paves the way for the next realization: that nothing can be lost. With that dual insight, you gain a special type of liberty. Not legal or physical liberty, but the mental and moral kind. You become liberated from every "should," "ought," and "must."
What you choose to do with your liberty reflects who you are. You can enter the flatlands of nihilism with a bottle in hand and self-pity a-plenty. Or you can live with compassion for those caught in their fear of loss, wit gratitude for a life that feels valuable even if ultimately meaningless, and with tranquility of mind knowing that nothing can be threatened, because ultimately, there is nothing to threaten.
Practice: Smile into the void Shakespeare once wrote, “the robbed who smiles steals something from the thief.” Whatever the world takes from you, you can steal something back in return. This practice is about learning to smile at the most difficult things imaginable. Suffice it to say, this is not easy. When I was growing up, my mother, a psychologist, taught me a trick. She said: “Smile. Even if you don’t feel like it.” Looking back, I realize it’s one of the pillars of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: act and your emotions will follow. That’s because body and mind are entwined in a very real way: The body doesn’t just heed the mind; the mind also heeds the body. Now, for the practice: Imagine you lose everything you have—all your success and security are taken from you. Smile at this. Imagine you never find a person to love and who will love you in return. Smile at this. Imagine the person or people you do love is taken from you, leaves, or dies. Smile at this. Imagine the planet itself goes dead, barren, and no life survives. Smile at this. At first it will be difficult—force yourself to smile. See what kind of smile feels natural. It’s likely not going to be the same smile you use in polite conversation or when the day is good. It’s likely not the grin of madness and not the grimace of pain, though it may have something to do with both. When you find the right smile, it will likely be a complicated one. A mysterious smile that sees past all things, both joy and sorrow, love and loss, death and time. It’s not an easy smile. It may take a long time to find the right one or get comfortable with it. But once you do, your attitude toward suffering and loss may forever change and you may, as Rudyard Kipling said*, “meet with triumph and disaster / and treat those two imposters just the same." (And if all else fails, go listen to “Dust in the Wind.”)
*From Rudyard Kipling's poem, “If."