It was only a short while ago that I fully began to know what the word “nihilism” really means. Admittedly, I’m only about 95% certain that I even know now. I’m almost certain that I mispronounce it on a regular basis. As a self proclaimed Existentialist and considering how much the idea pops up in existentialist literature, perhaps I should be ashamed of my shortcoming in this area but mostly, I’m not. (I’ll attempt to justify that apathy in direct relation this blog later so be on the lookout for it) And besides, like YOU’VE never used a word in conversation you didn’t fully understand, PLEASE! (eye roll).
My initial introduction to nihilism came from Nietzsche and I understood it to mean “the reevaluation of all values” (this is where I claim further ignorance because I only THINK he said that. If you’ve read any of his work, you’ll know they’re super hard to follow, so I may be incorrect on this as well). When I heard “reevaluation of all values” my interpretation was this; question everything… It may be that all the things you feel and believe are not as true as you’ve been taught to believe. Nothing is certain. All things are relative. Through his spokesperson Zarathustra, Nietzsche stated that god was dead and, therefore, there exists no judge other than ourselves for interpretations of the world around us. The subjective experience of the individual is the ultimate source of what is good and true. All values are are based on individual interpretation. (This is argued in other ways in my ‘Fuck Your Culture’ blog: https://brandonpeterslpc.wordpress.com/2018/03/01/fuck-your-culture/).
This sounds like an amazing and wonderful thing to me! If there are no preset rules for humanity and no ultimate designer of value then what remains is the absolute freedom to interpret life entirely on my own terms. What autonomy! What power! No omnipotent deity watching over my shoulder reading and judging my thoughts, no angry creator threatening me with eternal torment if I’m not wearing the right hat or if I shave my beard, or eat the wrong animal, no preset rules on how to live my life other than the ones I chose!
As I dig deeper into this idea, however, I’m understanding that Nietzsche and other philosophers see nihilism as a BAD thing. There’s an old cautionary statement regarding free will that goes something like this: “Everything is permitted“. (I should know who said it but I don’t). What this implies is that a lack of preset morality and preset rules on how to live leaves open all options, rendering all choices free from consequence beyond the immediate. If good is good, why can’t evil be good too? If one has free will, one can choose from an infinite number of options on how to live and in my more current understanding of what nihilism means, they’re all equally valid and moral as there are no operational definitions on what is The Way. One can choose the pious, saintly life or exercise free will in the direction of becoming the most prolific child rapist the world has ever known and theoretically, if there are no rules other than the ones we create for ourselves, they are both equally valid and moral choices.
This is where I’ve already lost some of you; “My god! Did you hear Brandon, A THERAPIST, say that child sex offense is a valid way to live!?” No, that’s NOT what I said. In Back to the Future, Doc Brown once accused Marty McFly of “not thinking 4th dimensionally“. This is where I’ll ask you to do the same. There’s a realm outside of our everyday, westernized, Americanized, Christianized, religionized, standard cultural moral upbringings where no values exist. My current understanding of nihilism is that it suggests that all of what we believe about everything is arbitrarily chosen rather than emanating from some external Truth. We are born with the capacity for free will and, therefore, the capacity to chose what we believe. We have the capacity to go right along with these arbitrary teachings or to completely disregard them. The choice to live in this way versus that way exist on a relativistic continuum where all choices have the same weight.
On the contrary, if there are preset moral standards then it can be argued that they must have come from somewhere outside ourselves (i.e. a deity). It then follows that the choice to live this way versus that way is more cut and dry; don’t live this way because god says not to…this thing is this and that thing is that, because god says so. In this scenario, morality and interpretation are provided by the designer of morality and interpretation. If there is no designer, however, then there is no morality. No interpretation. Nothing is inherently good or evil. All things are permitted and all of them are of equal moral value. If there is no god to judge that sexual abuse is immoral then it cannot be said, in a conclusive way, to actually be immoral.
Again, I’ve probably lost a few of you. I’m sure some readers are saying “but it’s obvious and demonstrable that sexual abuse harms the victim and maybe even the perpetrator”. Yes. I agree, wholeheartedly. Obviously, I believe that committing a sex crime is one of the more evil forms of the trillions of harms that one could inflict upon another. There’s the argument that if it causes harm then it is inherently evil. That’s an important point that I largely agree with but it lies beyond the scope of this blog. For now, suffice it to say, that in the philosophical realm, nihilism presents a problem. If there are no preset rules, if there are no operational definitions for anything, then anything can be considered anything. All things are permitted, even that which we have socially and otherwise prescribed as evil.
One of the manifestations of the problem of nihilism that Camus speaks of (again, my interpretation) is a sort of, hopeless despair. If all things are permitted, how can we ever really know what the right one is? If evil can be committed and we can’t even fully define it as evil in an absolute way, then there truly is no stronghold for us to cling to. “Why even bother?” asks this form of despair. If all things have equal value, then perhaps that value is zero; maybe nothing matters. This is where Camus’ idea of “The Absurd” comes in to play; “meaning seeking creatures thrust into a world devoid of meaning”. If nothing matters, then there is no meaning and unfortunately, humans don’t have a great track record for living long healthy lives that are without it. Despair and suicide are the natural outcomes of this type of life we’re told. Camus warns us that nihilism is the sure path to this type of despair and encourages a zest for life in the act of seeking and creating your own meaning as part of the antidote. I agree with this fully and try to incorporate it into my life. BUT, hesitantly, I’ll dare to challenge Camus and Nietzsche and some of the other mighty forces in philosophy and suggest it’s more complicated than this. This is where I’ll remind you and myself of that I’m challenging ideas that are far older than I and ones that have been pondered by men far smarter than I, so please excuse me if it sounds a bit tentative.
If you’ve been waiting for how this relates to psychotherapy, here it is; Rather than seeing a nihilistic attitude as a sure path towards ending ones’s own life, I’ll suggest, that we instead run headlong into it, that we embrace it and integrate it into our lives. If, according to this version of thought, nothing really matters, we can extend that line of thinking to say “nothing really matters, therefore, I get to chose what matters and how much it matters”. I say take this line of logic to it’s breaking point. Create your meaning and focus your time and energy on those things. Make the important things more important, make pettier the petty things. But perhaps the greater power of this idea lies on the other side of the fence; not what you chose to give value but what you chose to not value. I can be lazy or contradictory or hypocritical or selfish or shallow or pretentious or benevolent or selfless and NONE OF IT MATTERS. If you are any of these things or hell, ALL of these things, in the grander scheme of the universe, it doesn’t matter and you don’t have to feel bad about it. You don’t have to be depressed or anxious about it. If what is good or bad is subjective and everything is permitted, chose the rules and interpretations that will enable you to live a longer, healthier, more satisfying life. Society or other prescribed moral philosophies may suggest that if you are lazy, fat, homosexual, short, an immigrant, etc, then you are bad. If all values are subjective and self created, WHY would you CHOOSE to agree? All things are permitted…why not permit yourself to be a fat, lazy, short, homosexual immigrant who’s great!
Obviously, these are philosophical ideas. A lot of unpacking still remains here. The preceding are examples of mental and emotional jujitsu that are VASTLY harder to express in actual, concrete ways than they are to simply express in a written form. There’s still the idea that if everything is permitted and that if one has free will, one also has a responsibility to act in a manner that is as free from harm to self and others as is possible. It’s suggested that free will and responsibility are a package deal. You can’t have one without the other. With great power comes great responsibility, it’s said. Again, at least for this blog, this will remain unexplored but it’s such an important side note to the idea of nihilism that I thought I should at least tip my hat to it.
One of the things I remind client’s of frequently regards the nature of the therapist client relationship. Although the general public may misunderstand therapy as a guy with a degree and a fantastic beard just telling you what to do, it’s not that. It’s not me just telling you what to do and how to live. However, since this is therapy in blog form, I’ll break the rules a bit and tell you what to do; Incorporate nihilism into your life. Embrace your free will and choose your meaning. Everything is permitted. Permit yourself to make choices that benefit you in a positive, healthy way and permit yourself to choose to not worry and feel guilty about things that will detract from your life. None of it matters anyway, so why not just choose to make things really great?
Wait…did I already do this one? Oh well, if I did, it’s one that’s worth repeating. The opening track it 10 minutes long but it’s well worth your time. From my home state of Arkansas, Pallbearer.
Unrelated book recomendation:
The Missing Piece by Shel Silverstein. Did I do this one already too? Is Brandon running out of material?? Still a good book. It changed my life.