Nihilism is the belief that everything is meaningless. Usually this belief is coupled with the view that nothing we perceive is even real – that the world is a mocking veil of illusion.
One would think this error would be confined to a few despairing intellectuals, but in our day it infects even the general culture. This raises a question: Can one adjust to nihilism? Can one become resigned to meaninglessness?
In one sense, yes, adjustment is certainly possible – in fact, it has happened before. The ancient Eastern adjustment to nihilism is Buddhism. According to Buddhism, the great problem of life is suffering; the great cause of suffering is desire; and the great origin of desire is the illusion of personal existence. For suffering to end, desire must end. For desire to end, the illusion must end. To attain nirvana is to be annihilated, nothing more and nothing less. Expressions like “tranquility” and “bliss” are misleading, because such terms designate experience, and the illusion of experience has been obliterated. The futile chase for meaning has finally ended.
But in another sense, no, adjustment is impossible. For if my very existence is an illusion, then what difference does make that I am suffering? There is no need to seek annihilation, since I am not really here in the first place. So if I do seek annihilation, then plainly I am not adjusted to meaninglessness. I am merely trying to find meaning in the thought of an adjustment to meaninglessness.
Tomorrow: Déjà Vu, Part 2 of 2