Having known that I major in Philosophy, a friend of mine from the Psychology department asked, “Is there a counter to nihilism?”
In Philosophy, discourses are often dialectical, just like how essays are often written. If there is a thesis, there is an anti-thesis.
“It’s alright if you don’t know; I just wanted to try my luck.” He looked away and down to the floor. There was an unusual softness to his tone.
At that point, it had been for about a year since I dabbled in that philosophical tradition, and memory was failing me.
I thought for a moment. "What do you think nihilism is?”
He paused and nodded before proceeding, “The idea that there is no meaning in life.”
I was a little intrigued. There was not only softness in his tone. There was patience, too. He must be troubled by the question himself.
I pretended not to notice.
“Oh, existentialism would be a counter – if there is no meaning in life, then make your own!”
In our everyday lives, striking up a conversation about the meaning of life can be difficult. It can be a sensitive topic. Often, our ideas about meaning of life are closely related to religious faith and values and beliefs we hold close to hearts. Speaking to people about our own philosophy exposes a vulnerable side of ourselves. Sometimes, it is not easy to meet people who can be accommodating to beliefs and worldviews different from their own.
In my university, there is Interfaith Club. It is a place where people of different religious worldviews come together and discuss issues related to faith. It proposes to provide a safe space for such conversations. I suppose there wouldn’t be a need for a safe space like this if people do feel safe talking about these topics in their own lives.
For me, even accepting existentialism as a viable response to nihilism, I still often suffer from existential anxiety. I had come to see that there was always an accompanying prior resistance and dread for the future and for responsibility. When circumstances in life gets tough, it is easy to dwindle into bouts after bouts of existential crises.
Questions regarding identity surface at every chapter of our lives. Identity-formation is a lifetime project. We seek to understand how we relate to the world and the people around us. This information needs renewing and updating as we progress through life.
I suppose having our identity and values somehow challenged by life can lead to a spiral into questioning about why we are here. In face of this discomfort, some choose religiosity, or perhaps return to it. Some choose to attempt to reconcile our identities and values with circumstances in life.
However we choose to deal with our existential crises, we can perhaps relate to one another in the fact that all of us need meaning. We are meaning-making beings, and we make meaning of our lives are based on our own past experiences. It is who we inherently are as human beings, and it is something we can’t change about ourselves. But how we deal with it can make a difference to how we see ourselves, the world, and our lives.
Zi Hui is studying at the National University of Singapore. She has an enduring passion for the human condition, and for how knowledge of it can give clues to how one can best facilitate in life. She majors in Philosophy and Psychology.