I have a strange way of experiencing spirituality. I’ve never met someone who does quite what I do. I cycle through them. I fall into spiritualities and philosophies like falling into a pool. I’m inside it when I’m inside it. I used to say I liked trying on different perspectives like hats, in the same air as stepping inside someone’s shoes.
While I do, it’s a much deeper experience than that. It changes my very foundation each time. It is not like putting on a hat or stepping into a pair of shoes—it doesn’t come off on a whim. It colors everything.
I’ve been in a new cycle, and the last several months were experienced from a deep phase of nihilism. I didn’t realize it was nihilism, until I was reading Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” (which, I should mention, did nothing to convince me of any inherent meaning, given my state) and he mentioned it.
I was struck by relief. I am not alone! I thought. Others have suffered like me. Nietzsche, of course, how could I not connect my grayed internal state to him?
Nihilism can define several things, but often it’s the belief that life and existence is fundamentally meaningless. That’s existential nihilism.
I had, in a slow, time-driven waning, like the moon going to black, gone from a pseudo-theist to an atheistic existential nihilist. It wasn’t something that happened overnight. It was a gradual process, the same way going from an atheist to a theist (however broad my views of it were) had been a gradual process.
Life had been stripped of all meaning, and I suffered for it. I believe that humans are driven by meaning. We need a purpose, otherwise we flounder and feel unfulfilled on a deep level. We need meaning, vision, a mission. We have a lot of words for it, but often the most effective, most influential, and most contented and fulfilled of us are the ones who have it.
What is left for the nihilist, then? A full, tangible, inescapable recognition of the meaninglessness of all existence and, consequently, all action or purpose or mission or priniciples, makes it almost impossible to ascribe meaning where there is clearly none.
I’ve always recognized, regardless of where my spiritual beliefs lay on a given day, that those beliefs could be wrong. It gave me perspective, even as I experienced something fully.
So nihilism was (and is) a strange experience, where even considering that life might have meaning was as pointless an effort as considering the existence of unicorns that shit glitter. Yes, you can do it. Mull it over in your head, imagine what life would be like if you believed in it. But it doesn’t make the glitter-poo any more real (or the unicorn, though some might argue otherwise). You can’t trick yourself into believing it.
I had no perspective. There was no counterbalance to this belief. Nihilism erased any possibility of another state of the world.
It is different knowing a belief could be wrong and still having faith (for now that I’ve experienced faith, I think that that is most what faith is: belief in the face of doubt or when all evidence speaks otherwise). As an atheistic nihilist (you could be a theistic one, I suppose, since the existence of some source does not imply meaning), I was left knowing they were wrong and that continuing to believe in them, because they made me a better, healthier, more functional human being, was ultimately a meaningless endeavor, because everything was meaningless.
I derive meaning from my sense of spirituality. Spirituality doesn’t have to mean religion, although it can. One can be a spiritual atheist. I’ve been one.
So as my sense of spirituality moved more and more toward the nihilist, the foundation of deriving meaning from my spirituality crumbled, for nihilism itself asserts meaning is but delusion.
I suffered. I said that before, but it bears saying repeatedly, because I’ve only suffered like this so many times in my life and never quite in this way. I would have entertained thoughts of death, if death weren’t just as meaningless as life, and to cease living, as meaningless as continuing to live. In the past, my feelings of lacking meaning were accompanied by suicidal urges, a desire to end my life, because life was pointless. The classic lament.
This time was a true recognition that it mattered not at all whether I lived or died, so entertaining suicide was just a form of romanticizing death, ascribing a meaning to it and to the ending of my suffering that was just as deluded as any other.
The distress I experienced in this state is mind-boggling. I fell deeper into depression. I felt anxious, because I felt trapped. I felt lonely, because I saw that all these bees buzzing around me were outside my bubble of recognition and they did not suffer as I suffered, nor could they understand my suffering or the depth of it.
I was drowning, and no one could see it—and it didn’t matter that I was drowning, anyway, or that anyone should see it.
But even in the midst of meaninglessness, the desire for connection and understanding does not go away. It didn’t matter that I knew it didn’t matter. I could see it was only a folly of human genetics, but it didn’t stop me from experiencing it.
And that is why recognizing that I was a nihilist—that my perspective and the source of my suffering not only had a name, a well-known name, but that I was not alone in my recognition of meaninglessness and was, therefore, not alone in the suffering that such a recognition can cause.
People out there had and did see and feel this with me. I wasn’t the first human.
Of course, I knew I couldn’t possibly be the first human to experience it, but giving it a name and a recognized philosophy attached to authors with faces and lives changed things.
Something about this, ironically, gave my nihilism meaning. Suddenly, to be connected and un-alone gave it purpose.
I laughed at the irony, laughed that I was as weak as any human to the drives of our biologically-driven desires, and I embraced it, because it relieved my suffering and was the only thing that could. The thickness of my skepticism and borderline cynicism had been a barrier to empathizing with anyone who experienced any brand of meaning or spirituality or religion or philosophy. I’d always been good at respecting someone’s perspective, empathizing with it, but I’d lost that.
Perhaps it was my suffering that made my skepticism take on a cold tone, a consequence of feeling alone and misunderstood inside my all-too-clear bubble. Or perhaps it is just the way nihilism utterly erased any sense of counter-perspective, the idea that I could be wrong. It said, “I am right! This is all there is: nothing, no meaning. There is no question about it, and you live your life in delusion.”
But I am a better person with meaning in my life, however meaningless being a better person may be. So I clung to the strange, laughable meaning that the very word “nihilism” gave me. It was the first rung of the ladder out of the pit.
I’m still one or more feet into the pit, even though I’ve begun several spiritual practices, which are their own discussion, to pull myself back to the center that makes me functional (and happier). There are still times when I feel that nihilistic core rise up and bring a sort of brutal clarity to my state of being. It is, perhaps, the truest thing I’ve known. Or maybe in it’s totality and erasure of the ability to embody any other thought, it’s the least true. I’d like to think it’s wrong, but I’m not sure I believe that. There’s always been a piece of me that recognized it might be right—the piece that, no matter how filled with faith for whatever spirituality I entertained at a given time, nodded to the skeptic, to the piece inside that knows humans ascribe meaning to all sorts of things, but it doesn’t make those things have meaning outside what we’ve given it.
And now I’ve felt that core truth with a clarity that shed the world of all precepts and left me floundering in a hell unlike any I have experienced before.
I am grateful.
I am terrified.
I walk the world with cautious steps.