Nihilism: The rejection of all moral and religious principles; the belief that nothing really exists. (Oxford Current English Dictionary)
Okay, so I’ve got a bit of a nihilist streak in me. That doesn’t make me a bad person, does it? I mean, I say a bit of a “streak” because the truth is I actually do believe in things. Lots of things. I believe in life, love, art, ideas, all of which I feel enhances our experience on earth and makes what could be an essentially meaningless existence that much more bearable. Oh, and I also believe in a sense of humor. How could one not in the face of such absurdity? Even though I believe in these things, I also believe that all of it - pretty much everything we humans do - is essentially all arbitrary. In other words, we make it all up. We only go along with things like morality, rules, government, civilization because without any of it, we’d simply devolve into chaos. Somewhere along the line, we as a species recognized that without some sense of boundaries, without some sort of agreement to some sense of order, there would be nothing but anarchy - and I’m certainly not much of an anarchist either. I agree that we must have something to hold onto in order not to become a horde of savages, right? We have to have something to reassure us that it isn’t all just a random event that put us all here on this planet of ours, right?
I also believe that fiction often informs us of our reality at times. When you think of “the nihilist,” one thinks of the brooding, angry man, raging at the world, his hair in disarray, dressed all in black while he sits at his desk composing dark poetry or obtuse philosophy, or painting dark and disturbing portraits of the empty and meaningless existence in which he dwells. We think of this man on his knees, cursing God, claiming that he is either dead or non-existent, a book of Neitzchie on the coffee table, and possibly some dark classical type music emanating from his stereo while he contemplates ending it all because life has no meaning. Can you see it? It’s almost filmic in a lot of ways, and it probably has been the source of a film - most likely a French or German one - black and white, full of disjointed dialogue and ambiguity. Think of any personality cliché and I guarantee you there is some fictional counterpart that you can imagine in your head, some caricature used time and time again in the stories we make up. So what happens when these clichés and caricatures begins to inform the perceptions of our personalities based on the fictions we so often associate with them, or even worse, what happens when we embrace these clichés and caricatures in order to inform our personalities?
The truth is - at least as far as I see it - that we as human beings are supremely complex. Nothing is black and white. The ideas we hold, whatever they are, are not necessarily an indication of who we are as individuals. Just think of the labels we love to bestow on our fellow man and think of the very first impression that jumps into your mind: The Atheist, the Artist, the Republican Conservative, the Christian, the Muslim, the Bleeding Heart Liberal, the Professor, the Writer, the Musician, the Spiritual person. I bet those first impressions were informed by fictional representations of them, weren’t they? I mean, we all do that. We immediately jump to conclusions about these individual’s personalities based on their ideas, interests, etc but the fact is unless we actually get to know them, we really have no idea what makes them tick. For all we know, the Atheist could act more Christian than the Christian does; the Artist could be the most unobservant, most unimaginative human being alive; the Christian could be filled with hate, rage and disgust with humanity, the Spiritual person could be the most selfish, narcissistic person ever; but there is a tendency to link our fictional perceptions of these archetypes to the individuals in reality without us ever really knowing that individual in any real, meaningful way.
Sometimes we make these ideas an essential part of who we are. We are what we think, in other words. Ayn Rand and her Objectivist cohorts certainly believed this. Rand believed (and therefore her cult-like following) that one’s personal philosophy was often a reflection of them as a human being. In her particular case, it seemed anyone who didn’t share her particular worldview was “immoral” and “evil”. Pretty strong opinions that woman had, did she not? Particularly amusing since even she didn’t live up to her own ideals; but since we are much more complex than that, one can’t simply judge another definitively based on that criteria. I’m sure Mrs. Rand was a very nice individual, I don’t know. But she was certainly mistaken - in my view - that people are the sum of their ideas. Perhaps this sort of thinking is the reason why there is so much conflict between people.
In my own life, I most certainly came across this, many times. I am sometimes asked what I think about things and I tell them - as truthfully and as honestly as possible. Then my nihilist streak rears its head and immediately I am turned into my fictional counterpart in my imaginary French or German film I discussed above. I am immediately defined, despite the fact that the person asking me the question has absolutely no idea who I am. I am suddenly reduced to cliché, a caricature, a fictional creation. Suddenly, I am now “suspect” to this individual. I have become something that I am really not. All nuances disappear. All grey areas vanish without a trace.
Most of us are misunderstood creatures. We’ve all felt at some point in our lives that people in general - or even people around us - really don’t understand the complexities that make us human. That’s all we are in the end. Human beings. All of us: built with the same flaws, same tics and idiosyncrasies, same penchant for trying to find meaning in a life in which we didn’t ask to be brought into (that decision was made by someone else.) And since I am one who believes that life doesn’t really have any inherent meaning, we do our best to try to give it one, out there in the Great Unknown, each of us trying to find “the answer” for ourselves, that which makes it meaningful and bearable for us individually. It would be nice to try to do so without becoming the living embodiment of a fictional character, no?