Nihilism and Meaning

Photo by Pop & Zebra on Unsplash

Nihilism is the idea that life is meaningless. In popular thought, a nihilist is usually a person who does not believe in any higher power, no afterlife. You live and then you die and that’s it. People just naturally assume that nihilism is a pessimistic view. But why does it have to be pessimistic? Life may be meaningless. It may be the result of random chance. But individual lives are different. It seems to me that nihilism should be freeing. I don’t mean this in the existentialist sense. There’s no need for angst, existence preceding essence, or absurdity. For most individuals, meaning will develop on its own.

What makes something meaningful? Some answers that are often given is purpose, an ultimate end, or a plan. That can’t be right, though. Going to the bathroom has a purpose. Taking out the garbage has an ultimate end. Almost any mundane task requires a plan. There has to be something more to meaning.

I’ve never understood the theistic view of meaning. Sure, God may have a plan, a purpose, and an ultimate end, but so what? How is it meaningful for me to be an infinitesimal part of some grand scheme that I can’t comprehend? It may give meaning to the universe, but it can’t give meaning to any individual life.

The only way God could give meaning to a life is if a person has a personal relationship with God. A distanced, abstract God won’t work. But there’s still an opening for all those (most?) people who do not have a relationship with God. They can have relationships with each other.

The real key is relationships. They are what gives a life meaning. Virtually everyone has relationships. Now, not every relationship has to be meaningful. You and your Uber driver probably don’t have a meaningful relationship. But most of us have meaningful relationships with friends and family. Like John Donne said, “No man is an island.” Those relationships give our lives meaning even if we don’t believe in anything.

Just because life has no meaning doesn’t mean a life cannot have meaning. And it’s not like we need to make our own meaning, either. Most of us are born into a meaningful relationship. That means most of our lives, nihilist or not, have meaning from birth.

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