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Existentialism v. Nihilism v. Absurdism
A Brief and Personal Descent into Meaning-Making
2023 begins with a burglary while I am in the house.
He leaves a chain on my front porch.
I hit a nail and pop a tire.
A stolen wallet while in Dumbo, Brooklyn.
I walk out of the house and two days later is another flat tire.
A pickpocket takes my phone in downtown Austin.
I spend a summer in London grieving.
My computer busts after over six years.
So does my relationship of also over six years.
Another flat tire. Really?
And another (I should note that they were relatively new tires).
I move back to New York City, leaving everything.
Even my beloved cat.
The big move flags my bank. They think I am stealing my own identity (how existential!) and freeze all my accounts.
Down to $3.95, I charge black coffees to my credit card.
It’ll be 90 days until they release the funds.
I move into an empty apartment—the first time to ever live alone.
All amidst complete world turmoil in every way, shape, and form.
It is now November and here I am with nothing that I started the year with. Even my wristwatch shattered. My suitcase cracked.
I lose so much weight that my pants no longer fit, and I am glad I at least managed to bring my mother’s vintage belt.
Everything is meaningless. Disorienting. Destabilizing.
And yet, dare I say, delightful.
I distinctly remember waking up in tears in one day in mid September. I can hardly breathe I am so sad. I walk outside and I hear a familiar sonata echoing from someone’s window as the wind hits just right (the first chill of autumn), and my tears transcend, but are still present. Suddenly, I am bothered and bewildered! The old couple passing on 20th Street holding hands, the man watering flowers who misses them completely as he is lost in thought, the tiny dog taking a massive shit on the sidewalk, the man hurling peanuts at the squirrels—not violently but with dutiful attention to ensure that each one receives the nut. Suddenly, it is all so wonderful. My heart swells. Then contracts. Then swells.
I am deep in despair—yes, this is certain—but in the same breath I can hardly remember ever feeling so excited to greet each new day no matter what further atrocities come my way.
Because suddenly it hits me: I am not bored. I am not content. I am existentially exhausted. I am alive, goddammit!!!
I am on my Sisyphean jaunt—rolling my boulder and laughing as I do.
In my own circadian quest for meaning and an attempt to give it shape, I knead the yeast, flour, and salt that make up the daily bread of modern philosophy: existentialism, nihilism, and absurdism (my brain often feels like dough for this reason).
A brief 101:
Existentialists believe that we’re handed a world that has no objective meaning, but through a combination of free will, freedom, awareness, and responsibility, we can create meaning that works for us individually. As we’ve mentioned in this little newsletter before, existentialism’s favorite daddy is Jean Paul Sartre. His existentialism is summed up in ‘existence precedes essence,’ meaning no generalized account of what it means to be human can be given, and that meaning can only be decided and constructed through existence itself.
Nihilists believe life has no intrinsic meaning or value. Fun! You probably remember this from when you were really angsty in high school and checked out all those Nietzsche books from the library (I KNOW that wasn’t just me!). With the death of God that we as a society killed, he wrote in his work “The Will to Power”: “Nihilism appears at that point, not that the displeasure of existence has become greater than before but because one has come to mistrust any ‘meaning’ in suffering, indeed in existence… it now seems as if there is no meaning at all in existence, as if everything were in vain.” The thing about Nietzsche is he wasn’t a big fan of nihilism, it’s just the reality of our godless state of affairs that we have to learn to operate in.
Absurdists believe that, of course, humans seek out meaning in life. We wake up and hope to find meaning in whatever which way it may greet us. The rub is that each new dawn brings this fresh hell of flat tires, breakups, death, stolen wallets, faraway beloved cats, and fuck, another flat tire. The world is chaotic and devoid of meaning at all. This conflict between our desire to find meaning and the reality that this is a hellhole is at the core of what Absurdism’s founder, Albert Camus believes. So, what do we do? Well, Camus provides us with some options:
Off yourself. But he’s not in favor of this one because it somehow just makes the absurd more absurd (plus the actually being here part is amazing—the fact is the odds were NOT stacked in your favor so you should consider it a miracle that you’re here in the first place).
Off yourself…but like philosophically speaking. This is where we take a leap of faith into believing in a higher power. This takes the freedom out of living. Which does sound nice.
Embrace the absurd. That’s pretty much it. You are free to do whatever the hell you want in this hellscape and if you can somehow find delight in pushing your rock up your hill for your entire life, it actually might be an intriguing little life.
“But in the end one needs more courage to live than to kill himself.”
So, to recap: Existentialism’s goal is the creation of one’s essence—to wake up and make a conscience effort to create a self that aligns. Nihilism’s goal is to overcome itself, recognizing that there is no meaning in the world so we should, at minimum, reduce suffering as much as possible. Absurdism’s goal is really just to embrace the whole enchilada. Yes life is meaningless but also yes it can feel meaningful and yes we should embrace it but also sure we should rebel against it and shall we drink natural wine and dance as we do?
That’s what I am doing at least. In the last week I’ve tried to isolate each philosophy on different days. The yeast of existentialism that challenges me to rise, the flour of nihilism that feels shockingly whole wheat in its simplicity, practicality, and release, and the salt of absurdism that does make life savorier and zestier. All the while, I attempt to give meaning to all the desperate occurrences—was this series of crises pushing me to leave my life in Austin to return to New York City where something would await me here? Did my popped tires prevent me from driving to my friend’s house that night where I would inevitably die in an accident? Did my timing align perfectly with dearest friends so I could have a reminder of what’s really important—money, a home, stuff, comforts be damned!
Ah, the answers allude me, but the dance does not.