Combating Nihilism: Finding Meaning in a Meaningless Life

When I was younger, I thought nothing mattered. I looked up to the stars at night and pondered on my tiny tiny place in an overwhelmingly large universe, and I came to a conclusion: no matter what I did in my life, it would be so small in comparison to the universe, it would never really matter.

I felt free. A sense of relief rushed over me like warm water in a morning shower. I no longer had to carry the weight of every decision, no longer had to bear responsibility for every action. After all, none of it mattered anyway.

Unfortunately, my relief left as quickly as it arrived. Life reared its ugly head, as it so often does, and I was left to face my pain without any direction and without any meaning. I felt that if nothing mattered and I was suffering, what was the point of anything? Why go to school? Why go to work? Why get up in the morning? Why even live at all? I aimlessly wandered around in this state of mind for years, unable to find the satisfaction in life I once enjoyed.

I hung onto this worldview like it was my baby. I thought it was smart. I thought I was right. I thought anyone who had any idea about the universe would surely know it is so incomprehensibly large and we are so ridiculously miniscule that nothing we do could logically matter. I knew life always ended in death, from insects to stars, and eventually everything would just be wiped away. Anyone who had any optimism was just stupid.

I shared this sentiment with many of my University classmates in the English department, where this view of the world has become the norm. Nobody challenged this idea. It was smart, it was cool, and it was right.

Things stayed this way until the first day of classes during my senior year, when a professor asked everyone in our theory course why students were so miserable. It was something I had noticed, but hadn’t thought about much. We were miserable. Students provided their answers, and they all had to do with something else. Capitalism, society, rich people, the system, etc. In short, everyone else. Nobody sought for answers within.

At first, I didn’t either. I left the classroom without saying much on the topic, but I started thinking about it. Eventually, for whatever reason, I asked myself “what if it’s us? What if it’s me?” I really started to think about it. Soon, I began to notice the underlying similarity amongst all of us English students, who were just so damn miserable. We didn’t have a purpose. We didn’t have definitive meaning in our lives, because in the end, we all knew none of it mattered.

I began exposing myself to different perspectives and alternate worldviews. I thought deeply about this and what to do about it, and I soon overcame my misery. I grappled with strong, logical counterpoints to this worldview. Ones that are optimistically intelligent, which I thought couldn’t even exist.

The first thing I came to understand is that we don’t live in the universe. I mean technically speaking of course we live in the universe, so let me rephrase. We don’t live according to the size of the universe. We don’t act on a cosmological scale. We act between each other, on earth. Person to person. It’s irrelevant to consider how our actions affect anything outside of our local habitat because we don’t engage with anything outside of our local habitat.

So, there’s a scaling conundrum. We find ourselves disconnected when we act in a very small environment, but think we act in a very large one. The room is complicated enough. The school even more so. The city, immensely complicated. The world, a dangerously intricate place to try and navigate. Trying to navigate the universe? A place we don’t even understand. A place we have yet to touch outside of a very small pocket. As close to impossible as anything.

If we convince ourselves we live in the universe, we find it difficult to know where to start or where to go. It’s simply too big, too complicated. Too foreign. When I thought about things this way, it was hard to get out of bed. I was consumed by the overwhelming vastness that is everything. I was stifled and I was stuck.

What got me moving was the realization that absolutely everything matters. What I choose to do affects me, it affects the people around me, and it affects my direct environment. And that’s reality. That’s my reality. It’s where I live. Not in the universe, but right here. While I’m in the tiny space I occupy, I’m responsible for that space.

When I speak to another person, I’m responsible for what I say to them. If I choose to insult someone instead of compliment them, it affects my reality and it affects their reality, and that matters. If I put them in a worse mood because of it, or make them feel a little more hopeless, and they pass that on to someone else, I’m now responsible for negatively affecting another reality. If we keep going with this, we end up with the butterfly effect, where a small action can have a great impact somewhere down the line.

Even more locally than the space around me is the space within my own body. Instead of starting at the largest possible point and trying to navigate the universe, I needed to start at the smallest possible point and navigate myself. In short, to find meaning and satisfaction in life, I should direct my aim as narrowly as possible. When I started to implement this idea, the world became easier to navigate because, in a sense, I didn’t have to navigate the world. It’s much easier to focus on something small and controllable: myself.

This concept isn’t a novel one. It’s something many self-help books will suggest and has recently been articulated with great success by rising intellectual star, Jordan Peterson, who suggests you “clean your room before you try and fix the world.”

I like to think about myself like I’m building a car. I have all the parts, but a lot of them are broken. In order to build a well-functioning car, I first need to fix all of the broken parts. Some of them are more difficult to fix than others. Some I can fix myself. For the most part, however, I’m going to need help. I need to seek out people who know how to fix the parts and who can tell me which parts are broken. It’s my project, my car, but I’m going to need help to build it. I can’t do it all myself because I only know so much.

When I finally build a well-functioning car, I’ll be better equipped to help others build their own. When it breaks down, which it inevitably will, I’ll be better suited to fix it because I’ll have a stronger understanding of what’s likely to go wrong with it. Most importantly, I’ll be able to go wherever I want.

Jason Brendel
Jason Brendel

Jason Brendel is an author, poet, and comedian from Northern California. You can follow him on instagram @jasonbrendel.

11 thoughts on “Combating Nihilism: Finding Meaning in a Meaningless Life

  1. Oh I totally get you man. I’m that car as well. The world is telling me to live by its code, by its program, and no matter who’s in my bed, or what’s on my phone, I’m all alone. Untill I look up, and look around me at this world so bleak, but I’ve found serving those who are most in need, gives me something more than stale air to breath.

  2. Yes to creating new words for concepts not well explored! The poem I just wrote has a similar sentiment of ‘I can’t change anything’, but I feel it needs a sequel, which will cover ‘what to do when my room is clean’… but I think I don’t have all the experiences to write it yet…

  3. Profound and you are so right everything does matter. We are part of a complex interconnected tapestry. Every thought we have has vibrational energy and every action as a consequence and ripple effect. Beautiful and thoughtful. Thanks for liking my recent post and so enabling me to find you.

  4. I pretend that the whole universe exists for me alone. That in what we call time…past, present and future all happening at once, my life is a slice of that pie happening all for me. Simultaneously, the same is true for every person, they are experiencing their slice as if they were the only ones in the world. That’s why we feel like we are in a movie and everyone else is an actor. After that realization, you can begin to unleash your powers for good, and deeply meet with every person you come into contact with, even if it’s looking into their eyes and seeing them… you can leave an impression in their slice of time as well. Then you get to work, breaking out of the matrix you thought you were stuck in only to realize your more powerful than you know, and that’s why you are valuable to the system as long as your unaware. It feeds off your power. And in the end nothing matters more, than showing as much love to as many people as you can in your lifetime. And the thought comforts me, that God is experiencing my slice alongside, with me, through me. And in everyone else’s slice.

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