What is Nihilism?

The philosophical idea of nihilism might seem very heavy to most of us. Nihilism, however, is fundamentally just the conviction that there is no intrinsic value or significance to life.

So, while that initially seems gloomy and terrible, nihilism can actually have a freeing quality. You are relieved of the pressure of attempting to uncover some grand purpose or ultimate truth to govern your existence when you accept that life is intrinsically meaningless. Based on your own values and aspirations, you are free to develop your own meaning and purpose.

Nihilism can be interpreted as a call to live life to the fullest without being constrained by cultural norms or the need to follow a predetermined course. It serves as a reminder that everyone of us is only in this place for a brief period of time, therefore we should enjoy it to the fullest.

Nihilism isn’t for everyone, of course, and it’s vital to keep in mind that everyone has a different outlook on life. Yet, if you’re feeling disoriented or unsure about your role in the universe, it would be worthwhile to investigate the nihilist viewpoints and see whether they speak to you. Who knows, perhaps the experience will give you a fresh sense of freedom and direction.

There is an inherent risk with the philosophy of nihilism. When people think about the world having no inherent meaning, it can, to some people, lead to the conclusion that nothing is worth doing, life is pointless, and it’s not clear why we should bother with any of it. Nihilism can be a liberating philosophy in some cases, but it’s crucial to be aware of the dangers it poses.

This view of life can cause feelings of indifference or pessimism, which is one of its key risks. It might be easy to sink into a feeling of hopelessness or resignation if there is nothing in life that has any intrinsic worth or meaning. This may result in a lack of drive and a sense of disconnection from the world.

Nihilism also carries the potential of fostering a morally relativistic mindset, in which anything goes and there are no unalterable principles or truths. This poses a risk since it may result in a lack of responsibility and a disregard for other people’s well-being.

Nihilism can also be lonely because it can be challenging to interact with those who hold different philosophical perspectives. This may cause us to feel isolated and cut off from our surroundings. While it is an interesting philosophical idea, it’s crucial to keep in mind that there are other ways to live. Remembering that life may not have an innate meaning or purpose, but that we can still find joy and fulfillment in the relationships we form with others and the experiences we have along the way helps us to keep our perspective and sense of balance. We can choose to think about it in a more positive way. We can see the world as an open book. When life has no meaning, we are free to decide the meaning for ourselves and live out a life of our own design.

Which of these two paths we choose to take is up to us, but the optimistic path is much more likely to lead to a happy life.

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”


Nihilism & The Meaning of Life:

To make things simpler, I don’t believe there is any meaning to life. I don’t believe meaning exists outside of the human mind. It’s not something you find out in the big, wide world.

It comes from within. I believe that you project meaning onto the world. You decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.

So, from there, you have a certain amount of responsibility. It’s up to you to define your meaning. No one will do it for you. You have to decide.

That’s the baseline from which to begin. It’s on you.

“Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.”  

Viktor Frankl

There was a man held in Nazi concentration camps until 1945. A man whose psychiatric background provided him with the unique ability to observe and articulate the nature of the people he found himself imprisoned with.

More importantly, he observed how some of his fellow captives seemed to magnify their suffering in hard conditions, while others found ways to lighten the load.

The conditions were the same, but the mindset was different, and mindset is a choice.

The prisoner of war we’ll be exploring was a man named Viktor Frankl.

Frankl was a Jewish Austrian psychotherapist who lived in Vienna during World War 2, and in September 1942, events led him into the oppression of the Jewish Ghettos.

In October 1944, Frankl and his wife were sent to Auschwitz to be processed. That would be the last time they would see each other.

Finding Optimistic Nihilism:

Despite his suffering, Frankl used his background in psychotherapy and applied it to the human behavior he observed in the concentration camps.

He concluded that there was one trait that consistently helped captives deal with suffering and significantly increased their chances of survival; meaning.

Frankl put his work into a short but powerful book, Man’s Search for Meaning, outlining how we can avoid the pit of destructive nihilism when faced with overwhelming hardship.

Personally, this is one of the most profound books that I’ve ever read. I’ll link it below, and I’d recommend you read it, not only as a stark reminder of what the darker sides of our nature are capable of, but also as a guide into deeper meaning, resilience, and hope.

One of his key areas of observation was the necessity for the men around him to have meaning in their lives. He was overwhelmed by the ability of his meaning to help his fellow captives hold fast against their suffering and hardship, and even to laugh and joke about their situation.

He wrote:

“Thus it can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being. We should not, then, be hesitant about challenging man with a potential meaning for him to fulfil. It is only thus that we evoke his will to meaning from its state of latency. I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology “homeostasis”, i.e., a tension-less state. What man actually needs is not a tension-less state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”

We thrive under the right amount of tension. A place balanced between the enjoyment of past achievements, and the push to further achieve our potential. With this tension, our mental health begins to thrive as we are driven to fulfill a purpose.

As with so many other things, this is a balance. Too little, and you become lazy and apathetic. Too much, and you begin to sacrifice your well-being with stress and stretch ourselves too thin. We’re all different, and where this balance lies will be unique to you. You’ll have to find it.

During Frankl’s time in Auschwitz, and various other camps, he noticed that the fate of the men around him was heavily determined by the presence of meaning in their lives.

He noticed that those who were driven by a purpose or deeper meaning were more likely to survive than those who were not.

In the camps, this was literally a matter of life and death. An individual’s meaning served as a guide, a light through the darkest moments of their life.

How To Fight Destructive Nihilism:

Now, luckily, we live far more comfortable lives than Jewish prisoners of war in the 1940s. So while meaning may not mean life or death, purpose these days is more a matter of suffering and well-being. It’s still hugely important.

When we have decided our purpose, we will also find that we are more able to deal with hardship and misfortune. Purpose makes hardship more bearable because we have a reason to bear it. When our ship is caught in the storms of life and is violently rocked by the winds and the lashing rain, our purpose is to be the lighthouse that gives us hope and keeps us on course.

Without purpose, our hardships can sink us, defeat us. There is no lighthouse, no driving force that whispers to our spirit to hold the course and weather the storm.

In Frankl’s case, he observed that this lack of meaning saw many of the men around him give up, surrender to their conditions, and sadly pass away.

In our case, this lack of meaning will see many men and women around us fall into anxiety, depression, or nihilism.

Nihilism is the belief that the world has no objective meaning, and while this may be true, we must take responsibility for developing our own meaning. If we look for it outside of ourselves, we may never find it. It starts with us.

Frankl also wrote:

“To be sure, man’s search for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium. However, precisely such tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health. There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”   

Life often has us pay the price of suffering, and this price will seem far more bearable if suffer because of something, because of a greater purpose.

For example, our meaning could be to provide for other people, raise a family, write a book, make music, act, play sports, or cook. Look at parents who work sh*t jobs (sometimes multiple jobs) to make sure there’s enough food on the table for the kids. They have meaning, and it helps them bear their discomfort.

Whatever we choose to do, whatever path we decide to take, we must do so with the intention of purpose. So that we have that lighthouse.

The important thing is finding a meaning so that  you don’t get caught up in suffering without hope.

Frankl Wrote:

“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfilment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”

If you are struggling with finding meaning or don’t know where to start, don’t put too much pressure on yourself, keep looking. We can always decide a new path at any moment.

“Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.”  

– Viktor Frankl

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