Nihilism | Why We Have Everything Except Joy (1 of 2)


In the movie Fight Club, our main protagonist is struggling with what he finds to be a safe, mundane, middle-American life. He laments the cold and distant way society is set up – efficient carbon-copy consumerism. An example of this is how he describes his apartment as a mere filing cabinet for “widows and young professionals.” The relationships fostered as he flies around the country for work are only surface “single-serving”, and unauthentic. At one point in the film, after his apartment blows up, our protagonist divulges to Tyler Durden in a bar, “I had it all, I had a stereo that was very decent, a wardrobe that was getting very respectable – close to being complete.” Eventually, in response to these lamentations, Tyler opines, “the things you own, end up owning you.”

In Western culture, Nihilism is a belief system whose proliferation is typically attributed to Nietzsche. In his book Will to Power he wrote, “A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought not to be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist. According to this view, our existence (action, suffering, willing, feeling) has no meaning: the pathos of ‘in vain’ is the nihilists’ pathos – at the same time, as pathos, an inconsistency on the part of the nihilists.” In other words, Nihilism maintains that existence is without meaning.

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series.
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Nihilism is found particularly in developed nations with strong consumerism, a lack of social cohesion, and a dearth of authentic religion. What happens when a person gets everything they ever wanted, and it turns out to not be enough? The most obvious example of this can be found among celebrities that garner fame, power, and finances that would have made the Kings of old envious. Why is it people like Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Robin Williams, Chester Bennington, and Earnest Hemingway kill themselves? These people were gods among men, and yet suicide is almost unheard of in many of the poorest most conflict ridden countries in 2019 such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. This is not to say that suicide is the privilege of the wealthy and free – it is merely to say that having more things, more power, and more fame does not necessarily translate into joy.

When we live in a society saturated with convenience we lose a sense of purpose from the day to day. The desire to advance, accumulate things, and garner accolades only results in a stronger desire to do these things more, once achieved. Getting a promotion, and finding we are not satisfied, makes us yearn for another promotion. Getting married, and finding we are not satisfied, makes us want to see if the grass really is greener elsewhere. This principle carries over into every facet of life – including the biological. Our brains, for example, are experts at desensitization. If there is an odor in a room for too long, our brains will eventually stop processing it to the point we no longer smell it. An optometrist once told me our brains can learn to see perfectly fine even with a defect in the eye. The brain basically builds the image as if the defect were not there over time. We are resilient, and this is why addicts are never satisfied with a specific dose of a drug – they always crave more and greater highs in order to feel like they did the very first time they consumed.

What eventually sets in is a sense of disillusionment with life itself. GK Chesterton once wrote, “Pessimism is not in being tired of evil but in being tired of good. Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy. It is when for some reason or other good things in a society no longer work that the society begins to decline; when its food does not feed, when its cures do not cure, when its blessings refuse to bless.” He is describing how Nihilism develops not from the suffering in the world, but from the obtainment of blessing. For what does it really mean if we’ve finally obtained the blessing we thought would satisfy us, and still we are not content?

My wife gets annoyed with me as I frequently compare catastrophe in our personal lives to that of our ancestors’. We seldom stop to think about just how good we have it in the modern age. C.S. Lewis once described eras as B.N. and A.N. – Before Novocain and After Novocain. Like my father, he hated going to the dentist, but when Lewis was a child it wasn’t just scary – it was physical agony. When I hear someone complain about their dishwasher or laundry machine not working, or not being the latest model, I think back to my middle school field trip to the Hermitage or to a Mennonite camp where I saw the back-breaking work washing clothes used to be. People today like to complain about poverty, but what they don’t realize is 78 percent of poor households had air conditioning in 2005, 64 percent had cable or satellite TV, and 38 percent had a personal computer. Whereas just 60 years ago air condition was relegated to the wealthiest among us only. It took until the 1930s for rural areas in America to even have indoor plumbing. If you think it is hard to work 9-5 and raise a family, try working sunrise to sunset 6 days a week raising a family twice the size while fighting deadly disease with no hospitals around, roving bands of Comanche that want to torture or enslave you with no police around, and having no way to refrigerate anything you’ve farmed, and no clean water piped into your home that you built without the use of power tools. This was the life of a Pioneer. In contrast our lives are excellent, and yet we’re still disillusioned.

Harkening back to the discussion Tyler Durden is having with the protagonist of Fight Club, there is a piece of dialogue where Tyler asks if the main character knows what a Duvet is, and then he goes on a rant about how crime isn’t what bothers him – 500 channels on the television and celebrity magazines do. What is astonishing to me about this conversation is that as an audience member you don’t have to know what a Duvet is because those as ignorant as myself just googled it on a smartphone and found the answer. When Fight Club was released in 1999, just 19 years ago, no-one other than Steve Jobs could have dreamed of the power we now have in our hands. We have access to an unlimited supply of knowledge – we are not just the envy of the Kings of old, but we are also the envy of the Philosophers too.

Yet, with all of our wealth, convenience, knowledge, and power, we are a miserable society given to Nihilism. We tend to complain about our circumstances even though they are better than any have had living at anytime in history. Our rates of depression are ever climbing. If you were born after 1945 you are 10x more likely to experience depression than your ancestors. From 2005 to 2015, depression rates increased by nearly 20%. The fastest growing demographic being prescribed anti depressants is elementary age children. Total use of anti-depressants have soared 60% in just 15 years in America. So what exactly is the problem? Is Nihilism correct? Should we give way to lives of Minimalism in the face of rampant Consumerism? When it comes to purpose and meaning in life, the real question must be: is there any?

Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

Written by James Thayer