As a kid I assumed I would be a much more interesting student than I really am. I thought life would be filled with wacky adventures and huge declarations of love – with a few musical numbers added, of course. Now I see existence differently: I have fallen in love with the banality and the insignificance of the world around me.
I don’t like to have a “boring” life – I appreciate the quiet. The moments I remember are the quietest: watching the clouds go by, exchanging hesitant laughs with future strangers, and staring out the window on long journeys with my mom. I expect my “future” to get more dull: I’ll work a poor nine-to-five job to support myself, walk my dog, and read. Really, I can’t wait.
As I get older and the days go by at a frightening rate, I can’t help but notice how unremarkable my life is, for lack of a better word. This seems especially true when I talk to my friends, who all effortlessly organize internships, maintain their 4.0 GPAs, and voraciously travel the world – all of this is faithfully documented on social media. I guess that makes sense; the communities that many of us come from are filled with expectations of medical school, the McMansions and (false) meritocracy. He is proud of the fruits of âproductivityâ above all else. I would be considered a failure by any of these standards – I didn’t give my parents much to brag about.
However, I don’t see myself as a failure and I don’t see anyone as a failure. Recently I started to read Basic Philosophy. I know, another classic college kid trying to philosophize out of existential dilemmas while having deceptively deep conversations in their living room. But listen to me: I refuse to attribute meaning and purpose to existence.
Nihilism, Absurdism, and Existentialism are three similar schools of thought that you may be familiar with. They all operate on the same basic principle – that life is meaningless – but have notable differences. As an anxious person, embracing the nonsense and the mundane was the nicest thing I could do for myself. I used to spend waking nights worrying about the past, worrying about the future I felt locked in, and figuring out how to complete the puzzle of what I was meant to be. Especially during the pandemic, when my world became confined to my hall of residence, I felt so overwhelmed with anxiety that my hands often trembled with fear. Simply put, I needed to “touch the grass” to remind myself of my insignificance. So after a breaking point, I decided to re-evaluate my worldview.
After studying different schools of thought, nihilism, which says that existence is completely meaningless and therefore futile, seemed like the obvious choice for further research. However, upon discovering that all three philosophies are also known for their lack of socially accepted “morality”, I again felt lost. As much as I wanted to abandon any concern for the conventions of societal existence, I was just as hesitant to fully accept these philosophies. I believe in the importance of treating others with kindness and a general concept of socially accepted “morality” – whatever that means. Losing almost all hope in my new discovery, I slowly continued my research, dragging my feet. Eventually, I came across a beloved and slightly controversial video created by the Kurzgesagt YouTube channel, and my philosophy changed.
And this is where I introduce the idea of ââ”optimistic nihilism”. Full of contradictions, optimistic nihilism is “the belief that there is no meaning underlying life from the perspective of hope.” It’s not that we are doomed to live in a meaningless universe, it’s that we have the chance to experience ourselves and the universe we share. Simply put: nothing matters, and that’s okay. Glorious, isn’t it?
Not everyone thinks so. After reading enough talk on philosophy forums to burn my eyes, I learned that many philosophers despise the specific term âoptimistic nihilismâ. Many see the new philosophy as a simple blend of the three aforementioned philosophies – nihilism, absurdism, and existentialism – with a loose addition of “morality” (though many don’t seem to agree on what kind of parent philosophy they received).
However, optimistic nihilism – or repackaged existentialism – has deeply touched the lives of many people, including mine, in our post-industrial society. While the three parental philosophies describe high-level literature and art movements, optimistic nihilism is a beloved medium by which many people find relief in their daily lives. If optimistic nihilism has had such a personal impact on society and allows people to find solace in life, isn’t that in itself valuable?
Everything is unnecessary, whether it’s throwing a ball repeatedly through a hoop, moving ropes to create vibrations, or typing letters and numbers into an Excel spreadsheet. As long as something allows you to survive or brings you joy and doesn’t hurt anyone, you shouldn’t have to reason with it. Optimistic nihilism frees people from fear of institutions, allowing them to take care of their community and enjoy their lives more.
Ultimately, many seemingly different philosophies and religions remind humans of their insignificance in a vast and unpredictable world and give people a way to cope. Optimistic nihilism is my personal philosophy, and it goes against my fear for the future. Instead of placing my value in my work or in my gender roles, I put no value on absolutely nothing. Our goal is indefinable. From the way I see it, our existence doesn’t matter at all – it’s futile. We can value the prosaic and stop making our lives on the huge events we fear, and instead do them on the long stretches of beautiful nothings in between.
Decoupling the interest in life with the desire for achievement and belonging is one of the most drastic things one can do in the face of the hustle and bustle of culture. Currently, the way we live our lives is entirely focused on benefiting those who take advantage of our insecurities and our need to feel valued. Instead of waiting for the start of our so-called âbest lives,â marked by societal indicators of success – like a dream job or a McMansion – we can start our best lives now by avoiding universal conventions and embracing that. beyond survival, nothing really matters.
Meera Kumar is an opinion columnist and can be contacted at [email protected]