I Googled, “What is a nihilist” recently because it occurred to me that I might be one.
It said, ”A person who believes that life is meaningless and rejects all religious and moral principles.” I feel like there’s something in that I relate to but my personal philosophy is more like the line from the trippy animated 70’s movie called The Point (narrated by Ringo Starr)- there’s a character called the Pointed Man with bouncing arrows all over his body pointing everywhere and he says cheerily, ”A point in every direction is the same as no point at all!!” Everything is true and meaningful, therefore nothing is true and meaningful.
I think I developed this attitude early in life, which is mainly a defense mechanism against anxiety and doubt. I take a mostly lighthearted approach to decisions big or small and I don’t agonize much over what might or might not happen, or what I ”should” do in any given situation. And I’m able to do this because I really don’t think anything matters in a significant way. I don’t spend too much time wondering whether or not something is “true” or “real” because I don’t believe in an objective truth.
But lately I’ve started to ask myself, ”What do you mean ‘nothing matters’?! Of course things matter, right? It matters to you if you’re happy and healthy, that your loved ones are happy and healthy, you care about the state of the planet, you care about your job and your hair and if the house is clean and that you have the time and freedom to do the things you love… There’s so much that matters.” But really what I think it is, is that, even if things matter to me, it doesn’t really matter because I don’t matter.
And I don’t mean this in a degrading, low self-esteem kind of way, because honestly I think pretty highly of myself. I mean it in a look-up-at-the-infinite-stars kind of way. I’m sure we’ve all had this feeling before. And it can be a scary feeling but I find it usually very comforting and freeing. It’s a perspective that allows me to enjoy my life without too much over analyzing. So far my philosophy has been, “Act as if things matter, while at the same time understanding that they don’t.”
But the other day I was listening to Marc Maron’s podcast, WTF, where he was interviewing Chan Marshall, AKA Cat Power. Something she said struck me- she was talking about her struggles with depression and anxiety and that’s mainly what got her into music, that she could sit down with her guitar and sing and it was something real to cling to. I don’t know why that hit me so hard but it made me think, ”Right, of course. Music is real. Music matters. And if music matters, then many other things must matter as well.”
I’m wondering if, convenient as it may be, this perspective of mine might be wearing on me- this constant dichotomy of loving something and at the same time believing in its meaninglessness. I remember something my eccentric boss once said to me when I was working at a restaurant: “If you’re going to love something ironically, you should just go ahead and love it genuinely because, why not. You’re already putting energy into loving it; just love it.” Sometimes I feel exhausted by this internal split where my heart cares about something but my head says, ”That thing you love is essentially dust, empty space, a hologram. A speck in the cosmos.” My head can be such a downer.
I watched this movie yesterday, called Palm Springs- not a great title, but it’s basically an updated version of the Bill Murray classic, Groundhog Day. A guy is trapped in a time loop where he’s reliving the same day over and over, but only he is aware that it’s the same day. It’s such a great movie that I was skeptical of this Palm Springs version but it was actually quite good. In both movies I feel like they are using this plot device as a metaphor for the drudgery and repetitiveness of daily life and the main characters in each story go through a natural progression of what you might expect in such a scenario. Shock, confusion, denial, then a dawning realization of, “Wait, I can do anything.” After a lot of drugs, drinking, reckless and ridiculous behavior, comes a new low complete with repeated unsuccessful attempts at suicide.
In the Groundhog Day version, you eventually see Bill Murray’s character experience a complete transformation from arrogant asshole to lovable, considerate member of the community. In Palm Springs, Andy Samberg’s character also undergoes a change, with the help of Cristin Milioti’s character- he learns how to care. And he learns how to care despite the fact that he is living in a time loop, which is truly as meaningless as you can get. He lets himself want, he lets himself love, and he stops pretending not to care.
You may have heard the Rilke quote, “Let everything happen to you.” I looked up the full poem recently and it’s so good, and I’m adopting it as my poem/mantra whenever I start to feel myself detaching.
Go To The Limits of Your Longing Rainer Maria Rilke
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.