Millennial Nihilism or: How to Escape Depression and Reform the World
You are a Nihilist. You don’t realize it yet, but you are.
The troubles of the world weigh down on you as if you were responsible for all its shortcomings. You wish things could be different, and you do try to make a difference.
If you live in a neighborhood where Whole Foods just moved in, you feel better a person for the organically grown produce you buy and sometimes eat. You donate to the Red Cross. You adopt a rescue animal. You volunteer at Habitats for Humanity. You Tweet, vehemently, about your support for your party’s populist candidate. You sympathize with the cashier who you assume is working their third job for the day. You listen to NPR instead of Fox or MSNBC. You pay for your music subscription and Netflix rather than steal your entertainment like the others.
Yet... There’s still that thing in the back of your mind. Everything, really. The Earth grows sicker as we continue to pollute rather than evolve. You look away as a homeless woman begs for another quarter in the rain so she can get drunk and forget her troubles for another hour or two. You buy a Coke or a Pepsi. You buy bottled water. You drive around in your four-door. You drive. You shop at a Whole Foods that once was a local pizza joint or a bowling alley, a local favorite that was pushed out of the neighborhood due to higher lease rates.
You listen to the reports of shootings, stabbings, police brutality, civil war, helpless refugees, bigoted politicians, shameless CEOs and corruption, and internalize it. You let the acidic rain drip down your cheek, ignoring it. You eat at Arby’s. You buy clothing that was more than likely made halfway around the globe by a worker living off cents a day. You buy an iPhone. You leave the other one in your desk until the battery inside it corrodes.
But, this is not your fault. It's impossible, really, for any of us to evade the negative-producing shlock of the world — more so for those unable to buy produce at Whole Foods and instead shop at the nearest dollar menu. We are, as you feel, part of a system that is fatally ill and in denial. Yet you can do nothing about it, for the changes that would need to happen are monumentally grandiose. So what can you do? Live off the grid? Some do that. Some die from that. Most come back from that.
In the face of your inability to take action, all that’s left to do is expunge, refuse, repudiate everything. We take stances on subjects just to promote an opposition — some kind of opposition — to anything. To everything.
We dress differently, harken back to simpler days with simpler technology. We make things on our own. We control the trivial aspects of our lives that we can claim has killed no one, hurt no one and taken advantage of no one. We protest impossibly large concepts — corrupt capitalism, global warming, police brutality, nuclear armaments, entire religions.
We spit in the eye of the elder generations just to let them know we are here. We are mad. We are toiling with an internal battle that was created by our forerunners. Not us. We didn’t make this world. You did.
Yes, every generation goes through this rebellious period. Yes, we are following this same trajectory. Yet, there is something different about our circumstances than any previous cycle before our own. We are a generation of Nihilists pushed against the threshold of the end of everything.
Where others faced malignant governments, we face Climate Change. Where previous enemies were nations, our enemies are terrorists — some with dark skin, others with blonde hair and blue eyes, all touting whatever backwards cause they feel justifies their senseless violence. Where the middle class once reigned dominant in America, today we grow increasingly divided in an unproportional class system. In short, the problems we will confront in twenty years seem so huge that it is basically impossible to make any sense of it at all, let alone have any hope we can do anything about it.
It's in all of our heads, even if we don’t talk about it. It's in our news, our music, our entertainment. AMC’s Breaking Bad was a monstrously popular show that featured one man’s choice to become evil in the face of death. The Walking Dead — currently cable TV’s most popular show — is literally about the end of the human species in the most gruesomely awful way possible. True Detective’s Rust Cohle — whom everybody f*#king loves, myself included — was a visual spokesman of classic, Nihilistic pessimism. Even the Lego Movie harbours a dystopian society ruled by denial, conformity and force-fed happiness (speaking of, I found it incredibly eerie that Pharrell's song “Happy” became popular about the same time as the Lego Movie came out with “Everything is Awesome”).
And now USA Network has come out with quite arguably the most groundbreaking show we’ve seen on cable: a series about one young man’s burning desire to change everything about our system of living, utilizing the darkest of current events and turning them into relevant lines or a monologue about what’s wrong with, well, everything. What Mr. Robot and all these other incredibly dark shows and movies fulfills is our insatiable desire to scream, “EVERYTHING IS F*#(ED!”
It seems where previous generations had entertainment that was light, jazzy and deliberately hid the ugliness of the world and society, we dove head first into the ocean of Nihilistic pessimism. Of course, there is indeed something empowering and awesome about being so self-critical it brings you to the same point of insane rebellion Elliot faces in Mr. Robot, but at the same time there is a danger of this zealous renunciation that can ensnare us into an immobile depression.
Yet it does feel that we are tailspinning into a hole that we thought couldn’t run any deeper. How many beheadings must we see on TV or online? How many times must somebody go on a shooting rampage? How many trillions of dollars must we spend on guns and ammunition? How many more billions of gallons of gasoline must we guzzle before either running out of fuel or endangering the entire planet beyond rescue or adaptation?
We do want to be sedated, and everyday we are. But there’s that thing behind your deliberately ignorant consciousness that chips away at your stability. And it grows, and grows, until we find ourselves so far down that hole that we have no choice but to confront our situation head-on: death is imminent and nothing is meaningful.
But is the world to be riddled in anarchistic apocalyptia? Maybe, but not forever. After all if one follows Nihilism to its logical conclusion, the negation will negate itself by definition of its own doctrine.
Nothing is meaningful. There is no morality. God is dead. The world and our existence serves no inherent purpose.
But those are all clauses, ideas that themselves become doctrinal in an era of Nihilism (possibly) more extreme than our own. If we continue on this path of extreme self-examination and exaltation of the status quo, then eventually the status quo will be Nihilistic ideology. Therefore the last step in this ideology is the shedding of Nihilism itself in favor of what Nietzsche called the revaluation of values.
A lot of people hated how the first season of True Detective ended, where our two heroes escaped the long cold talons of death and somehow exited as mixed shades of each other’s former selves. But those who paid close attention to Rust’s character should have noticed that he was pessimistic about existence and therefore was unable to follow Nihilism to its end goal and reform his values.
When Rust took action (completed the case and allow himself to fade into death), something that which pessimists ultimately lack the energy or courage to do, he engaged in the will to power, or rather the will to move on. His character exemplifies the last step that takes one out of depression and immobility and into a new sense of awareness beyond good and evil, beyond metaphysics and Ego. Thus, Rust transformed his sense of the universe from “nothing is meaningful” to “nothing really is actually meaningful.”
In other words, we have the ability to fill the void of nothingness with values and meaning that make sense on our terms, a truly evolving and democratic approach to the definition of life’s morals. Just as he said in the last lines, “Once it was all dark. Looks to me the light’s winning,” so too can we rebuild our ideas of existence in the total vacuum that Nihilism creates.
So what would this mean for us floundering Millennials? Maybe something like this:
Endure and don’t despair. The long and silent darkness that creeps from underneath us is not one that traps us forever, even if we don’t live past its arrival. The annihilation of everything brings about a total reconciliation of past wounds and lost dreams. The annihilation of everything is what brings about everything else to come.
A fire burns in a forest, ravages the landscape and clears the path for new growth to occur. This is what it feels to be trapped in the fire, to not know when next we’ll see peace and calm and assurance.
Revel in it, for in the darkness of the Abyss there’s nothing else to do but defy it, laugh in its face, and give all hell to see that the future we envision today comes true tomorrow.
This is all of course a rather melodramatic way of saying that though we may be alive in a stepping stone of an era, it does not mean we have to equate it with weakness or depression. It’s rather the opposite. What we do today enables what others do tomorrow. A stepping stone must be strong and stable in order for the future to continue onward, and so that’s what our generation must learn to do, just like the others did before us.
And if one goes to this point, they’ll discover that this is the ultimate nexus of creative energy. The blank canvas of Nihilism is the invitation to create and grow, not the damnation to die and wither. If one takes this approach to, say, their entrepreneurial endeavors, they’ll see there is nothing to lose in the long run. Even if your idea fails today, the possibility of it thriving tomorrow becomes that much stronger. You’ll learn, adapt, provide meaning where before little or none existed and finally you’ll inspire others to try and do what you did.
Nietzsche’s Übermensch — originally translated as “Beyond-Man” — is an ideal for us to achieve on Earth, an aspiration to go beyond what we have been capable of up to the point of transformation. And if you think about all the violence, fear, manipulation, corruption, and greed that has plagued our species for thousands of years, the idea of evolving into something that is life-affirming and in love with the Earth as much as ourselves is a rather lush concept that is welcomed by the starving children of man today.
So what now? Continue to expunge. Continue to rage in protest for a better world. Continue to regurgitate the concepts we have been force fed our whole lives.
To reject everything is to clear the way for a new, better world. Today we may be pessimistic Nihilists, but tomorrow may be a different matter entirely. If we can hold on and not commit mass suicide courtesy of hydrogen bombs or global pollution, then we can rise beyond what we thought was impossible.
At least, that’s the idea. But if you really want to escape depression and reform the world, you have to go so far down into self-exaltation that you wake up tomorrow as if you’d just been born.
Then the real work would begin.