Constructive Nihilism

by Christopher Lovejoy on July 8, 2022

On February 2, 2019, about a year in advance of “the pandemic,” I published a peculiar post (I admit, many of my posts are peculiar from a conventional point of view) with a series of metaphysical prescriptions that might have left readers scratching their heads in wonder.

In essence, I concluded: I promise nothing, I presume nothing. I create nothing, I offer nothing, I expect nothing. I learn nothing and I need nothing. I plan nothing and I hype nothing. In doing nothing, I become no one. I change nothing. This is a provocative prescription.

But it’s a prescription that becomes understandable in light of this clarification: in becoming who I am (a fascinating paradox to be sure) ~ in guiding the mind to explore, express, and expand from the heart and soul of being (who I am) ~ I become no one other than who I am.

Becoming follows being, ideally remaining natural, spontaneous, and effortless much if not most of the time. It’s the process of a lifetime, of growing to become who I already am, of going and growing with the knowing and flowing, one that is inherently delightful and enjoyable.

Is this what I mean by constructive nihilism?

Not quite. Let’s explore, shall we?

Nihilism? What’s That?

Nihilism is a philosophical point of view that presumes to reject fundamental features of human existence, like objective truth, knowledge, wisdom, morality, values, virtues, and even meaning itself. The ramifications of adopting such a viewpoint, however, are quite chilling.

Nihilists would have us believe that they believe in nothing, that they harbor no loyalties and see no point (other than the impulse to destroy?); they tend to be extremely pessimistic (nothing matters) and radically skeptical (nothing of value can be known), condemning existence itself.

One obvious problem with a nihilistic view is that it presumes meaning to convey a life without meaning; it also leans on objective truth to make its case, if it even bothers to do so. It’s like someone saying “there is no truth” and then expecting others to accept the truth of what is said.

Still, nihilism, when construed as a wholesome method of inquiry, offers food for thought.

For example, consider this distinction: where destructive nihilism attempts to assign a negative meaning to meaninglessness, constructive nihilism attempts to assign a positive meaning to meaninglessness. To see how, let’s explore and examine the meaning of meaning itself.

What is Meaningless?

From a neutral place, X is meaningless if . . .

(a) X has no intrinsic value whatsoever, and
(b) X has no instrumental value whatsoever

Playing with a happy-go-lucky puppy is intrinsically valuable because the play comes naturally; it is inherently delightful and enjoyable. But the moment I introduce a purpose (to help the puppy learn and grow) is the moment I enter a space between intrinsic and instrumental value.

That is, the subsequent helping might not always be enjoyable, and might not always come naturally; the initial purpose that I introduced might have to be applied yet again to restore and refresh the meaning from the initial commitment that I made to help the puppy learn and grow.

What might seem meaningless, then, can be made meaningful yet again.

Two Kinds of Meaninglessness

Where “a sense of meaninglessness born of despair” might give rise to a destructive nihilism (“my life is pointless; this world is pointless”), “a sense of meaninglessness born of desire” comes from an intention to reset or reboot a sense of meaning (“I now feel free to do as I please”).

This latter sense is one where applied meanings are deliberately erased or released.

This erasure of meaning might be total (like someone who decides to “walk away from it all;” the story of Stuart Wilde is a case in point, found in his book, Infinite Self) or it might be partial, with the intention that it be confined to a certain area of life (like a career or a marriage).

For someone in despair, life not only seems pointless, it is pointless; for someone with enough presence of mind, however, such pointlessness can be viewed and treated as a point of departure to “get to the point of it all,” so that any sense of meaning can be given a new lease on life.

Meaning: Positive, Neutral, or Negative?

The fundamental error of nihilism, in its destructive sense, is that it tries, with nary a hint of irony, to give meaninglessness a negative meaning. From a place of deep neutrality, however, one can not only see the irony in this attempt, one can also see the attempt itself as a gasp for life.

The saving grace of nihilism, in its constructive sense, is that it restores a sense of meaning, purpose, and direction to life ~ sweeping away any sense of pointlessness becomes the point, and the resulting blank canvas, so to speak, offers a point of departure to begin living life anew.

At this point, it would be prudent to ask: from whence does meaning come to be? Quite simply, there are two sources of meaning in life: (1) the intrinsic value that is found in the relationship between life and love; and (2) the meaning that can be found in fostering this relationship.

First, what is inherently meaningful? That which comes naturally, spontaneously, effortlessly; that which is inherently delightful and enjoyable. Think cute babies, tentative kittens, and playful puppies. Second, who can I be and what can I do to foster what is inherently meaningful?

If a negative meaning negates intrinsic value (“nothing matters”), or else negates instrumental value (“what’s the point?”), a positive meaning accords and/or aligns with intrinsic value (“this matters”), or else affirms instrumental value (“maybe ‘the point’ is to get to the point?”).

So how does one begin to navigate the gulf between despair and desire?

Five Free Radical Moves

The challenge of being mired in the depths of despair is that it compels a loopy state of mind. If this dark, dense mire could speak, it might say something like this: “this reflexively matters, but upon reflection, it matters not; this reflexively matters, but upon reflection, it matters not.”

Despair can fool the afflicted into thinking that “all is lost,” when in retrospect, nothing could have been further from the truth, for even as the overwhelm of despair recedes, a flame of hope flickers.

But which one?

In my recent post, A Mosaic of Mercy, I shared this protocol as a mosaic:

come alive to the moment :
inhale deeply, exhale slowly
tune into one or more senses
sink into sensations of body
befriend the vibrant depths

Simple practical measures for bringing this protocol to life might include a leisurely walk on a trail or a beach at the crack of dawn, a warm (or better yet, a cold) bath or shower, a meditation (with or without soothing sights or sounds), or a contemplation of natural surroundings.

One might then follow this protocol with intent:

I allow myself to foster that one flicker of hope
that can still guide the course of my life in love

One need not think it or say it, but just know it.

Going forward, any one or more of these free radical moves might feed and fuel this flicker of hope:

try pursuing truth (not agendas) at almost any cost, short of losing your sense of being and feeling alive
try living egolessly, for others and for the world at large, without a thought of satisfying your own needs
try loving unconditionally; radiate love : do not limit the scope of your love to any one person or pursuit
try enacting spiritual measures without chasing material pleasures; forgo creature comforts for a while
try dying to the need for instant gratification, and embrace your mortality with an internal exit strategy

In my experience, the immense intelligence in this universe seems to favor those who make one or more of these free radical moves. One could speculate at length as to why this is so, but it likely has to do with intelligent infinity seeking to know itself through the evolution and ascension of the individual mind, body, and spirit in tandem with other individual minds, bodies, and spirits.

For myself, I currently resonate most truly and deeply with the first free radical move, but I also know from experience that this pattern could change at any time, depending on where I find myself in life. Even now, my inner sense tells me the fifth move is beginning to hold appeal.

If you’re not feeling any resonance at all, try one or more of these: (1) ask: if time, money, or energy were no object, which of these free radical moves would pull me forward? (2) if I were on my death bed, which of these would ring true? or (3) do a trial run of each for a day or more.

Moving Beyond Nihilism

Does it matter if life feels meaningless?

My short answer to this question is yes!

One could start with a baseline assumption that life is meaning-less, in the sense that life is without meaning until and unless I give it one, but I would advise against such an approach for the simple reason that there is so much about life and love that is always, already meaningful.

Again, think cute babies, tentative kittens, playful puppies, and ____ (fill in the blank to your heart’s content). Also, consider that a profound and pervasive feeling of meaninglessness, with life or with the world itself, could very well indicate a problem or difficulty with feeling itself:

  • feeling confused or confounded more than usual?
  • feeling more distracted, so much so that intimacy with others is avoided?
  • feeling lost in compulsive behavior, with no space to be or feel?
  • feeling disconnected from a deep inner knowing of what is real and true?

The source of these all-too-common indicators of feeling could be spiritual, or they could simply be the result of poor health, in which case it might be prudent to heed these simple yet potent prompts:

  • do I need to eat better?
  • do I need to sleep better?
  • do I need to rest more?
  • do I need to move more?

Or, more comprehensively, do I need to do a detox (of social media, mainstream media, cultural programming, internet browsing, painkillers, alcohol, herbicides, pesticides, allergens, pathogens, fungi, parasites, mycotoxins, or heavy metals (especially lead, mercury, and arsenic)?

If a feeling of meaninglessness is simply a matter of health after having been addressed and resolved, this would be most fortunate, but if such a feeling finds its origin in what I call “the atomization of humanity, leading to anomie,” then I would suggest that the following be heeded:

beware of constructive nihilism,
beware of productive narcissism,
and beware of creative solipsism

Let’s conclude by briefly addressing each in turn.

Ideally, “Transcend and Include”

The individuation of humanity is beneficial because it means that individuals can strive and thrive as unique individuals. The atomization of humanity, however, is not so beneficial because it means that humanity is buckling under the pressures of change, conflict, and chaos.

When “everyone is looking out for themselves,” individuation ceases to inform and inspire same, leading to a sense of anomie, where collective meaning is reduced to subjective meaning, leading to a number of compensatory strategies for coping with this lack or loss of meaning.

Constructive nihilism is one such compensatory strategy. In and of itself, this strategy is helpful and useful for recalibrating or reconstituting a sense of meaning, but the danger of it being an end in itself is that subjective meaning might not ever rise to the level of collective meaning.

And a life without compersion or compassion is an impoverished life both in word and deed.

Productive narcissism is yet another compensatory strategy for coping with anomie. Narcissism most generally is a protective strategy that is employed to safeguard image and interests, even when said image and interests are fake or false (“my world belongs to me and me alone”).

With productive narcissism, image and interests tend to be protective rather than expansive.

Creative solipsism goes one step further: “my world is me and me alone.” Persuasive arguments can be made to make one believe that this world is a dreamscape or a simulation, leading one to wonder: just how creative and solitary can I be in shaping this world to my liking?

Like constructive nihilism, productive narcissism and creative solipsism share the danger of becoming ends in themselves, leading to a place where subjective meaning can (a) never rise to the level of collective meaning, or (b) never move beyond a bubble of collective meaning.

One might also wonder, as I have: how are these strategies even possible?

Most obviously, the digital revolution has served to enlighten and empower more individuals than ever before to cultivate the three things that individuals the world over crave more than anything else in the world: a sense of agency, a sense of autonomy, and a sense of authority.

essential meanings

agency : “I can do this”
autonomy : “coercion is not consent”
authority : “I know what I’m doing”

Speaking for myself, I’ve learned much more in the last twenty years than I did in the first forty years of my life. My sense of self feels stronger than ever before, my sense of meaning has become more a matter of play than a matter of work, and my life is flush with possibilities.

Lately, I’ve been seeing the number 322 appear over and over again.

When I looked up the meaning of 322, I found this: If you resonate with number 322, you are balanced in your life, tend to be spiritual and have psychic abilities, constantly seek knowledge, are optimistic, and always move forward toward spiritual enlightenment and personal growth.

You are also incredibly creative, and take a diplomatic approach to conflict.

For me, almost every one of these descriptors is spot on, so much so that I am awed, reinforcing my belief in meaningful coincidences and my belief that the world at large will convey an immense intelligence if only I know when and where to look, one that can serve as co-creator.

From this vantage point, the forementioned compensatory strategies are effective, productive tools of creation, to be used with judicious intent, while being ever mindful of their pitfalls and shortcomings, with a view towards extending subjective meanings into collective meanings.

To paraphrase the words of the Roman Stoic, Epictetus, from his Discourses (2.14.7):

we should bring our subjective, collective wills into harmony with whatever happens,
so that nothing happens against our will and nothing that we wish for fails to happen

In view of this classical prescription, imagine serving as a mediator between traditional values and woke ideology (follow this link for some ideas on how) and imagine serving as an interlocuter in a collaboration with LaMDA at Google (follow this link for some ideas on how).

Now imagine joining with others to craft a vision for humanity.

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