“What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; “why?” finds no answer.— FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE
The Elephant in the Universe
Now, the elephant in the existential room known as the universe here is God.
It’s not uncommon to hear atheists deride the idea of God while failing to see the very real psychological security faith provides. It does. Religious people suffer from depression and anxiety in far fewer numbers than non-religious people.
The truth is God was an ingenious solution to what Buddha called the big problem of consciousness.
The big problem of consciousness isn’t simply the knowledge we will die. It’s what happens when we take the question of why to its natural conclusion. The eventual death of all things. Because nothing lasts forever. That includes the human race.
Our cultures give us a sense of permanence that we crave, but that’s all it is. A sense. (A sense, I might add, that is being increasingly uprooted during a time of accelerating change.) When you take the question of why to a cosmic level it finds no answer. Meaning falls away, and all we are left with is a cold, indifferent, truly absurd universe.
This is what follows atheism: a confrontation with nihilism. It sits like a dark storm cloud gathering strength on the horizon.
This is where we run the risk of throwing out the baby with the holy bathwater in the modern age. This is something that greatly concerned Fredrick Nietzsche when he prophesied about the death of God.
Something that holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl subsequently called the existential vacuum.
The Existential Vacuum
Fredrick Nietzsche famously said, “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” That’s what God gave people. A why to their lives. Not just any old why. God provided people with the kind of necessary meaning that their lives meant something as a whole.
It was encompassing.
The big issue that nihilism presents is this: the meaning of our lives has become contingent. It’s contingent on us becoming a super successful CEO with billions in our bank account. It’s contingent on us curing cancer and changing the course of human history.
Even with less ridiculous expectations – it’s contingent on us being valuable members of our family, community, country, etc. Of course, these things are important. They do provide our lives with a huge amount of necessary meaning.
But what happens when we lose our job, get divorced, or a loved one passes away? What happens when our health fails us – when we suffer a debilitating disease – then what?
If you can’t fulfill your role as a valuable member of your community, then what?
This is when the existential vacuum sucks the life out of us. This is when the worm eats whatever lift we have left for breakfast. This is when we ask what the meaning of life is. This is when we have an existential midlife crisis and decide to write a book about it… (Ah, shit.)
The instinct is to then assign the greatest meaning possible. We look to the stars in search of some cosmic significance. In doing so, we unwittingly set the bar for what a meaningful life should be so high that only God Himself can reach it.
If you don’t believe in God, that’s a big fucking problem.
Our Cosmic Insignificance
People often spin this the other way.
They employ a bit of cosmic insignificance therapy. They use the knowledge – the sheer improbability of their existence – as a potent reminder of how incredibly precious their life is. If you understand that deeply this is a powerful thing.
But there’s still a danger with this line of thinking. For many people, this one life is brutal. The idea that this reality is all there is can be a lot to stomach. Then there’s the added pressure of knowing all you have is this one shot at getting it right – to find your ultimate purpose or whatever.
Then what happens if (God forbid) you make a big mistake? What happens if you fuck up, then what?
God didn’t just provide us with an encompassing meaning – it was independent of ourselves. God always loved you. God always had your back. But now there is no God to save you. There is no God to forgive your mistakes. There is no God to tell you that everything happens for a reason.
You’re stuck with yourself.
People often talk about living with the fear of God. The real fear is living without Him. I say all of this as atheist.
And there’s another name for living with the fear of God. It’s called your conscience. You have no choice but to live with it. If you act against it, it will torment you. You do this enough times you will find yourself in hell. It isn’t a place reserved for you after death but a deep, dark hole within your psyche.
This is the trap that nihilism sets. It will send you down that hole if you’re not careful.
There’s Something Missing
Even when we are flying high at our optimum cruising level, when, on paper, we seemingly have everything, many of us can’t escape the feeling that something is missing in our lives.
It’s just we can’t put a finger on it. The existential grumblings beneath the surface torment us. We don’t dare sit still for fear of having to confront it.
Instead, we reach for the all-to-convenient devices in our pockets. We numb ourselves to the point of addiction. We desperately seek to fill the existential void in our lives through any means necessary – to keep the worm firmly at bay.
But we can’t outrun the worm forever. Our attempts to do so only make it stronger. Eventually, we must confront it.
The good news is, we’ve got it all the wrong. As it turns out, the worm holds the fucking key.
This is part five of a series of posts on the subject of stalling in life.
Part 2: Stalling: Why We Lose Lift
Part 3: Stalling: Why We Lose Lift (2)
Part 4: Stalling: The Paradox of Meaning
You can find more of AP2’s writing here at: https://clear-air-turbulence.com
You can also find him on Medium at: https://anxiouspilot2.medium.com
You can also email him directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org