Authentic Existentialism: From Nihilism to Anti-nihilism

exist3 “You have to take seriously the notion that understanding the universe is your responsibility, because the only understanding of the universe that will be useful to you is your own understanding.” ~ Terence McKenna

What does it mean to be authentically existential? In this article I attempt to answer that question by comparing and contrasting the fear-based position of nihilism, theism and the fixed state, with that of the courage-based position of anti-nihilism, existentialism and the freed state. Let’s break it down.

Nihilism, theism, and the fixed state
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” ~ Shakespeare

These are fear-based ontological dispositions toward meaning. The main reason most people fall into these three categories is because most would rather dodge the responsibility of self-meaning, of discovering meaning for oneself. Mainly because people are lazy, but also because discovering self-meaning is just too damn scary.

If we allow ourselves to be the master of our fate, a spiritual warrior instead of a victim for example, then we have no one to blame but ourselves if things don’t turn out well. We alone are responsible for the meaning we create, and that’s a very scary prospect for most people to handle. Let’s delve a little into each.

Nihilism:
“The life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.” ~ David Hume

Nihilists are victims of fear because they fearfully reject their spirit and the expense of their humanity. They extremely renounce any meaning whatsoever. They embrace apathy and ennui while rejecting empathy and happiness because there is no meaning and everyone is nothing but an infinitesimal flash in the pan in an infinitely overwhelming and engulfing universe, so why even bother with meaning in the first place.

They are cynical and pessimistic to the extreme. They suffer from an irreverent-ego that paints the perception of reality into a lethargic, dispirited lack of concern for anything, while clinging to nothingness as if it were everything. As such, nihilism leads to spiritual stagnation.

Theism:
“Time makes ancient good uncouth.” ~ James Russell Lowell
exist2
Theists are victims of fear because they fearfully reject their humanity for their spirit. They extremely defend their idea of meaning. They embrace blind faith and a self-righteous good that’s based upon parochial and outdated religious doctrines.

They suffer from a pietistic-ego that paints their perception of reality into a pigeonholed, dogmatic fundamentalism while clinging to antiquated beliefs that the passage of time has rendered uncouth.

They have placed all their eggs into a single basket, which they cling to for dear life. They vainly attempt to cram their notions of infinity into the finite paradigm of their belief at the expense of infinity (God) itself. As such, theism leads to spiritual stagnation.

Fixed States:
“Life oscillates like a pendulum, back and forth between pain and boredom.” ~ Arthur Schopenhauer

What do theism and nihilism have in common? They are both based in fear, they both suffer from extremism, and they both vainly and naively attempt to cling to a fixed state. In short: they are afraid of change. They don’t want to have to answer to cause and effect, vicissitude, or impermanence. They want things to be comfortable, to fit nicely into place, and to be securely permanent despite impermanence.

They want their answers ––spoon-fed; crutch-leaned; pigeonholed–– to remain the answer, despite the Truth. As such, they lash out, they kick and they scream at anything that attempts to pull them away from their seeming need for things to remain the same. Their tiny egos, whether pietistic or irreverent, are so afraid of the unknown that they cling to their fixed state with white knuckles and self-righteous vehemence. As such, the fixed state leads to spiritual stagnation.

Anti-nihilism, existentialism, and the freed state
“He who does not answer the questions has passed the test.” ~ Franz Kafka

exist4 This is the other side of the ontological coin. These are courage-based dispositions toward meaning. The reason most people do not fall into these three categories is because it takes courage, passionate and empathic self-love/Agape-love, fearless forgiveness, and high humor.

It takes spiritual grit and trial-&-error resolve to become personally responsible for creating self-meaning. One must be okay with being wrong, with being fallible, and with being an imperfect human being.

But in the next instant one must also at least attempt to do better, to become healthier, and to strive toward wisdom and enlightenment. Even if, and maybe even especially if, it’s all for naught. Let’s delve a little into each.

Anti-nihilism:
“The Church says: the body is a sin. Science says: the body is a machine. Advertising says: The body is a business. The Body says: I am a fiesta.” ~ Eduardo Galeano

Anti-nihilists are courageous because they dare to turn the tables on nihilism. They embrace nihilism. But rather than dwell on it, rather than drown in the glass-is-half-empty ennui of it all, they decide to swim, and they keep swimming. But they’re looking for waves, and before you know it they’re surfing. They courageously catch the Giant Wave of Meaninglessness and thereon declare meaning within their surfing. So what it’s all meaningless? So what it’s all an illusion?

So what it’s all a giant void of nothingness with us suffering at the center of a giant cosmic joke? It’s our meaninglessness within which to create my own meaning. It’s our illusion to play with. We are the ones laughing at the cosmic joke instead of merely being the butt-end of it. As such, the anti-nihilist becomes the spiritual personification of freedom.

Existentialism:
“There can be no transformation in the world outside unless there is transformation from within. It is our responsibility to bring about a radical transformation within ourselves.” ~ Krishnamurti

Existentialists are courageous because they directly and proactively engage in creating meaning for themselves despite the inherent meaninglessness of the universe and in spite of the overall absurdity of existence. They understand that absurdity doesn’t lie in an ontological condition, but in an existential contradiction: it is the primary paradox of human conception.

How to find meaning in a meaningless universe. How to find meaning when “meaning” only means something according to the creator of the meaning: us. So the existentialist is aware of being a pivot for meaning itself. They embrace the fact that they alone must leverage meaning into their own lives, and then be responsible with the consequences of such leveraging. As such, existentialists become the spiritual personification of freedom.

The Freed State:
“What labels me, negates me.” ~ Søren Kierkegaard
exist5 At the end of the day, even anti-nihilism and existentialism are merely labels. The freed state is authentic existentialism. The freed state sheds all labels, even as it occasionally dons them.

A person who has achieved a free state of existence comes and goes as she pleases. She dips in and dips out. She swims freely through all labels, titles, names, brands, prejudices, beliefs, thoughts, and dispositions.

She dons a mask, then she breaks it, and then she dons another. She slips into the cloak of nihilism and then slips out into the cloak of anti-nihilism, enjoying the sport of it. She slides into the skin of theism, mocking it with high courage, and then slides into the skin of existentialism, laughing at it with high humor.

She stumbles in and glides out. She falls into rabbit holes and ascends into wormholes. She transforms Witchcraft into wit-craft. Why? Because she can! Because she is the Infinite Player, and it’s all a game that only she is responsible for.

It’s her sacred game to play, and nobody can stop her. It’s all her meaning to personify through expressive art and compassionate love. She existentially cries out, as Fernando Pessoa once said: “I am nothing. I’ll never be anything. I couldn’t want to be something. Apart from that, I have in me all the dreams in the world.”

Image source:

Miles Toland

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  • Gary 'Z' McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide awake view of the modern world.

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