I have long observed that Buddhists were onto something with this “life is suffering” hook. I feel it in my bones, and nothing about my life, in the context of human existence, is even close to hard. The day to day is, to borrow a phrase, a suffer.
For years I disagreed with them about the best way to handle it. They say to confront and accept the universal truth that life is suffering; I found the distraction that alcohol, recreational drugs and otherwise compulsive addictive selfish pursuits is far preferable to staring down that suffering, fully aware and fully exposed.
Part of my drive for distraction comes from my not insignificant struggle with nihilism. What started as whispers of “what’s it all for?” in my early twenties has matured to full blown existential dread surrounding the socioeconomic, thermonuclear and global climate threats our specie will face in the next 150 years. I think that there’s a decent chance I will suffer some form of doomsday scenario (I’m nothing if not a little self-important), and that it is a near certainty that humanity will cease to exist inside of two centuries.
Pretty bleak, I know.
But yesterday (literally yesterday, it’s been a strange week), I realized that my nihilism about the immediate future of humanity was self defeating. That, just as this drab outlook has robbed the reason and purpose from most of my other thoughts and motivations, it must then also undermine nihilism itself.
Nihilism x Nihilism = Relief
There are two outcomes to my sincerely held belief: either the world ends in my lifetime, or the world ends just outside of my lifetime. No matter which, it actually makes today absurdly bright.
The Last Generation
Take the example of the world ending in my lifetime. This, the worst case scenario shouldn’t inspire any sort of relief, right?
It’s 2051, and as I approach my 65th birthday, I whither away underneath the stifling blanket of a nuclear winter. My death is both unremarkable and painful. My nihilism sings a triumphant to me — nothing I could have done in my entire life could have prevented this, aside from offing myself on my own terms earlier. My existence was, in a word, meaningless.
But… That really takes all the pressure off of me, now doesn’t it?
My existential dread stems from the idea that I will never be able to amass enough legacy, wealth, or influence for my life to rise to the threshold of “meaningful”. With all of those metrics themselves rendered meaningless, I would be prudent to enjoy my remaining time as best I can. My overwhelming fear that I won’t accomplish anything, or that those accomplishments don’t mean anything, is suddenly also meaningless.
While I am still loosely bound by the construct of consumerist capitalism, I am liberated from the idea that I should be subservient to these institutions I so passionately detest.
If I will witness the fall of humanity, if my own death will be but a tiny part of our final song, then that becomes the only thing to worry about. I’m freed from literally every other fear and insecurity, because if nothing matters, we must include what pains us.
We should focus only on living in the present moment, because it’s literally all we have.
That’s not so bad. And it actually gets better, once we consider the implications of the other option: I don’t see humanity’s final hours, I simply get to ride on the train of decline as it approaches it’s final destination.
The Greatest Time to be Human, Ever
If the world doesn’t end in my generation, sparing me for one of few next, then I will have lived my entire life in one of (if not the single) greatest generation(s) in human history. That my story would have taken place entirely in the cosmic nanosecond of humanity’s finest hour, and I will have been spared the pain of the end.
Pardon the phrase, but holy fuck.
“Naive. This, of course, is not humanity’s finest hour.”
Name a better time to be a human being.
Up until the advent of modern medicine in the early 1900s, we commonly died of what are now docile illnesses. Medical treatments were not much more than folklore combined with trial and error. Treatments included heroin, cocaine, and even arsenic.
The “Greatest Generation”, born 1903–1921, would have lived through a time when lobotomies won a Noble Prize, where hammering an ice pick through the eye socket and into a patient’s brain was said to cure most any mental health issue, from depression to acute cases of naivety, presumably. Hard no.
That takes us, more or less, to the baby boomers.
“Right, and the baby boomers lived through the greatest generation in human history, and then fucked it up for the rest of us.”
I actually believed this for years, until I really compared 1954 to 2019. (The black ring in my little logo? Size 2 font, “Fuck the boomers”, over and over.)
Sure, they had incredible upward mobility, fair wages, job security, retirement plans and savings accounts. What paradise!
They also had segregation, blatant, unapologetic racism, and World War II. That “best time ever” applied to only a portion of the population. Back to that whole suffering thing.
Age of the Cell Phone
They also didn’t have cell phones. Which meant getting lost driving at 4 AM didn’t mean “I need to find a place to charge my phone”, it meant “Holy fuck I’m hours from home, have no idea where I am, and less idea how to find out.”
They couldn’t, in a moments notice, access the vast majority of human knowledge, on demand, for any reason.
Was it the ‘BerenstAin Bears’ or the ‘BerenstEin Bears’? Was the show called ‘Sex IN the City’ or ‘Sex AND the City’? In Queen’s “We Are The Champions”, aren’t the closing lyrics “And we are the champions… of the world!”?
What is now a simple click, an inquiry we so take for granted, was then a trip to some place called a library. And for many questions— most in fact — it just wasn’t worth it.
(If you thought it was the Barenstein Bears, Sex IN the City, and that “We Are The Champions” ended with ‘of the world!’, don’t worry, I’m from the same alternate universe too — fancy seeing you here!)
And that’s just the silly stuff.
The Age of Naked Information
From exactly where I’m sitting right now, clad in boxer briefs and a set of headphones, pasty white chest glowing back at the monitors of my office, I can learn almost anything I want to, in its entirety, given enough time.
If you’re reading this, you can too. And instead you’re consuming the ranting of a lunatic. (Thank you, by the way.)
While libraries offered some of that should you want to, say, put pants on, a library in 1954 didn’t have a video masterclass by Santana on how to play the guitar. (Or, for my younger readers, a masterclass in music production by Deadmau5.)
The access and opportunity we (we as in any one of the ~4B people alive today who have access to the internet) have is unparalleled in human history. (This is a point Gary Vaynerchuk makes often that, despite being one of my favorite voices, I’ve often dismissed as hyperbole.)
And while there are major socioeconomic issues with access to this as more of us sink further into the ensnaring trap of poverty, it should not be overlooked that, still, we have access to more tools than all of our ancestors, combined, times a million.
We are living in humanity’s finest hour to date. And if tomorrow brings ruin, we are living in humanity’s finest hour, period.
My bleak view and outlook maintains my two original possibilities — that we are the final generation, or close. I still think that is very likely, and I’m not thrilled about it.
But, if it all ends in this, or the next, cosmic hour, then today — right now, this moment — is one of the best days to be a human being in our entire, short lived history.
And that, my friends, is as good a reason to do something with your nothing as I’ve ever stumbled across.