The threat of meaning versus the indifference of Death: Ramblings of a man in the throes of nihility

(A work in progress)

A recent experience has compelled me to put in words a view I’ve always gravitated towards: that the threat of meaninglessness, of total indifference, while psychologically tormenting and hard to live with, is nevertheless a relief since death is final. The threat of indifference is really in trying to come to grips with the fact that everything you’re now doing, have done, or will do, is just another process in nature, with as much or little meaning as a rock rolling up and down the hill – the torment, the terror, is fixating on the fact that you’re afraid, devastated, tormented while picturing to yourself that this experience is akin to the rain falling. The rain has no interiority, no reflective capacity; it is oblivious to its effects, positive or negative. It rains, and rains, and rains and that’s it. Why should this be so bad? The simple reason is that it appears the sense of meaning, at least for humans, requires a certain sense of permanence, a concreteness that validates these experiences beyond their immediate effects. Meaning seems to require transcendence.

The proof of this is how devastating events can make the world and everything you believe seem utterly meaningless. A recent event in my life has made me question and doubt every single thing I’ve done in life – what has been the point in building carefully to this point? Why have I not taken more risks? And of course, the corollary is that even if I did do these things, taken more risks, been reckless, they too become meaningless; the actions different, the meaning, the same, nil. Thus, it appears that one is stuck imaging different courses of events that would have voided one negative experience but nevertheless would not have made experience in general anymore meaningful. One is compelled to draw lessons from events, from experiences to generate the permanence that meaning appears to require – this happened because of X. This “X” can be outside the individual control, fate, or some such ( general religiosity) ,or within it ( X will mean for me). And thus you’ll need to do Y or inform someone of Y. Or whatever platitudes we learn from our failures and negative experiences.

But again, these platitudes serve us while living, they serve us in allowing us to bear the unbearable yet here we are still faced with the stark fact – a world of indifference does not care about the world with platitudes and the temporary relief one may experience from learning a lesson is equivalent as learning nothing from the perspective of Death, the great equalizer. In other words, we have here an imagination of a state we cannot experience, a state wherein our triumphs and failures are equally imperceptible – the permanence one seeks in meaning is undermined absolutely by death for here no one has the ability to view and judge for themselves it’s permanence – whether or not I do things right for my children, for my community, for my state or grandiose, for humanity, the results of my actions are permanent only in so far as I exist to dream it. To think it. Once I’m gone I cannot be disappointed or happy with what I’ve done, nor can I regret not doing what I should have done, or any numerous reasons that compel us to behave in certain ways. Once we picture this exactly, it should be realized why the problem of suicide really cannot be answered by simply maintaining or focusing on the pleasures, or responsibilities in life. It compels many not to but consider that, if I die, while you may judge me harshly, I will never hear this judgment. Ever. I only experience this judgment on the way out. Consider, also, that all that are hurt by the act of suicide will themselves die and no longer ever experience the pain and hurt that accompanied the act.

Thus, in the end, the indifferent, absurd world while tormenting provides relief in death. It ends. The suffering ends. The suffering is meaningless but at least, it ends. In response to Cioran’s devastating epigram “It’s not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late.” One, in the throes of nihility, may say “Very well, but better late than never.” Which gets me to the threat of meaning. What happens if this isn’t it? What if Death is neither as permanent or final as we may think?

Let’s think the most horrible, and even worse absurdity, the notion of a literal, fire-breathing Hell where the morally corrupt, the unjust, and “unbelievers” will be cast. Forever. What if all those fundamentalists are right? You will burn eternally for your sins, however small. This is rather terrifying, moreso, than the permanent indifference of the void. I often wonder how people bear this terror, those that really believe in God, The Eternal Torturer and are themselves of questionable ( if not outright immoral) character.Of course, people lie to themselves, take refuge in forgiveness and such but then they must experience a certain terror when death approaches. For anyone who believes that God, the Eternal Torturer will come back to pass judgment on us all, the end of his or her life is the end of the world. Consider that in death there is no experience of anything -the indifference spoken about earlier- you are one with the void and and thus the passing of time is something you cannot be conscious of. This means that at the end of life, of your bodily existence, even if you died a millennia before the last judgment your very next experience will be your resurrection and judgment. The moment you die is the moment you experience the end of the world. Because the time that passes between death and the end of the world cannot, in principle, be experienced. Am I not right in calling this a worst absurdity? To die and then immediately awake to be punished infinitely for finite crimes? Must not the devil have created such a world?


This is where I’m at for now. The rest of this note is supposed to expand on actual cosmologies I find interesting insofar as they purport a grand vision of life. I will get to that another time. Basically, some random thoughts on heretical versions of Christianity, reincarnation, and such.

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4 Responses to The threat of meaning versus the indifference of Death: Ramblings of a man in the throes of nihility

  1. Paul Newall says:

    It could be that the terror of hell is mitigated by the possibility of heaven and forgiveness, such that there always seems to be a way out or at least a chance of salvation. By way of contrast, the “permanent indifference of the void” permits no escape because the concept doesn’t even make sense in this context. Perhaps the greater fear is not the lack of meaning or even the threat of punishment but rather the ever-present doubt that we might be wrong?

    Anyway, thanks for a superb post.

    • Chen says:

      I think you’re right that about Hell being mitigated by the hope of Heaven – even as the sociopath or the simply morally questionable envision eternal punishment, that the possibility of redemption exists, allows one to bear it. Similarly though, the indifference of the void, if that is the case, while certainly offering no hope of redemption doesn’t offer Hell either – and therein lies the escape. It doesn’t make much sense in this context but, again, simply imagine the uttering of those words, the subsequent interpretation, and whatever happens hence as just another “event” sans the inescapable interiority and it’s dissolution, while impossible to think, or experience, becomes that. We return to dust and dust doesn’t ponder anything.

      Which gets me to the final point – which is exactly where I’m going – it is this doubt, the possibility of being wrong, that is one of the things which is truly frightening. In subsequent posts, I hope to develop on this. Basically, I’m intrigued by the obvious fact that all traditions so far have viewed our existence (at least, our bodily existence) as transient but the background, the “web of belief” that determines what this transience means has been quite varied. For example, I’m writing from a perspective that I think is now fairly common though maybe not expressed – this transient life, this 80 years or so we have on earth – is all we have and we “have” it in spite of the world, the universe, as such, being utterly meaningless. The backdrop then, is of a an unimaginably vast, empty, nothingness which is just as transient. We are another event in what is an infinite series of events.

      In other traditions though, we may have belief in reincarnation, we may have belief that “earthly life” ( if there could be others) is a prelude to something else. Thus, the transience of our experience is interpreted as serving some function ( if we but realize? or if we will it to? both? ). The “web of belief” from which this transience is interpreted is one of an incarnate, or immanent meaning to existence as such. Or the possibility of? I don’t know. I just intend to explore some ideas along those lines.

  2. skholiast says:

    As you know, Nietzsche thought that the Eternal Return was “the most extreme form of nihilism”. The realization that this meaningless course of one’s life, whether one ended up in the gutter alone with some awful disease, or in comfort and surrounded by friends, or mowed down by accident in your prime, or whatever, was not only just an effect of purely natural chaos but was going to happen exactly as it had, over and over and over. To me, this is even worse than Hell as imagined in the worst depravity of Jack T Chick.

    What is often overlooked in Nietzsche exegesis is that the full force of this horror comes with the realization of the Return. Suddenly you see yourself not just as a natural effect, but as a kind of automaton on iron rails, which just happen to be as they are, and just happen to include a moment of “seeing the whole,” so that you know the pointlessness, the infinitely shallow banality of the whole stupid grind, which renders you not a hairsbreadth better off than anything else because you are still on the rails and there never was anything but the rails anyway and never will, and how do you know it wasn’t just another phantom tossed up by the churn of illusion and meaningless chaos (now the experience is fading, now it is already past, the horror is just slightly less and you are torn between still wanting the truth no matter how bad (which only means you have suppressed just how bad), and wanting no matter what cost to not go back to that place on the rails.)

    As you can probably tell, I’m talking from experience. And I appreciate deeply this post that one can tell comes from experience too.

    • Chen says:

      Nice reply, skholiast. I suppose the thing that gets me in all of this is that the “responses” to the issue, even if, admirable in their boldness are tragic. After all, what man could ever make every decision in life with full knowledge that he would make the same decision every single time eternally? It would be a nightmare to “live” like this yet this is partly the injunction of Nietzsche. Life becomes a series of grand decisions at each and every moment, an obvious impossibility, making the injunction even more tragic – one finds themselves having to dream the impossible in order to deal with the absurd.

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