Nihilism Syndrome

Why we were searching for the bar in the chapel, I will never know.

Bah Humbug indeed. Found at Brasenose College, Oxford, while searching for the bar.

In my absence, I’ve secretly been really busy. Remember how back in February I was having more adventures so that I could tell you about them? Well, I’ve done it again. Funny thing, though – last year, I felt like I answered questions, and this year I feel like I’ve asked a whole bunch more and not really figured out the answers.

You ever heard of cognitive biases? Of course you have; you’re modern people. In case, however, you are a time traveller (welcome to the internet, by the way; we have cookies, but only if you’re software), this is essentially where you think something, and then the pattern-finding aspects of your neurology find instances in your memory that support that thought. Over time, it is possible to think something so many times, or find so many instances where you think it’s the case, that you convince yourself of it, and it’s hard to go back once you’ve done this. This sounds bad, right? Perhaps like something we should avoid? Some of them, definitely – but we use them all the time. It’s our cognitive biases, in part, which allow us to have a defined sense of self, to believe that our work is something worth doing, or even to be socially functional (or at least, this is my hypothesis). But what happens when you change? What happens when you start to think the work you do is meaningless? What happens when you imagine yourself to be friendless?

What happens, essentially, surrounding the onset of depression?

At the heart of catastrophic personal crises (again, speaking from personal experience) is a shift in sense of self. You’re cheerfully going along, thinking of yourself as a particular assemblage of traits: you wear what you wear, say what you say, think the way you think, and you treat people the way you think you ought to. It’s a bad day when you realize that you don’t feel comfortable in your clothes, or that you don’t say what you think anymore, or that the way you think isn’t the way you like to think or – and this is what happened to me – the way you treat people is so much worse than the way you think you should treat people. All the cognitive biases that have helped you live the story that is you are suddenly wrong. They’re not you anymore. And suddenly you’re floating in a cold universe as the anchor that was all that you believed to be true falls away. You hurtle, directionless. It’s uncomfortable.

As draining as it is to have to redefine yourself, there is a certain sense of excitement that comes with it. Liberated from the manacles of your sense of self, you’re free to explore all the possible people you’ve ever wanted to be. With any luck, you wind up lighting on someone you’re comfortable being. There is the additional challenge presented by the expectations of those around you, whose own personal cognitive biases that form their idea of who you are may lead them to wonder what on earth you’re doing, and who this crazy new person is, all that. (If this is something you are or might someday struggle with, my advice to you is to speak the relevant people and let them know what’s going on. They’ll probably surprise you by understanding, and letting you do the things you need to do. Anyway.) That’s tough, because you’ll struggle with matching your expectations for yourself with those of the people around you, and where they conflict you will encounter difficulties.

But what about when the work you’re doing ceases to hold your interest, because you can’t understand its practical application in the world? This is where my struggles lie, and have lain for the past…well, for a long time. Thinking about how long makes me feel shrivelled inside, and hurts. I spend a lot of time battling simultaneously with excruciating embarrassment to have misspent my money and time knowingly, twice, with disgust at myself for having been so short-sighted, and with unending fear that I will now never, ever get to where I want to go. I fucked up. And I’ve spent four years fucking up. Four.

There’s this funny thing that happens to me, all the time. It’s like karma, but it’s a lot more immediate. Whenever I judge someone, or whenever I go through something in a relationship, chances are that the next time that the opportunity arises, the tables will turn and I will be on the giving end where I was on the receiving end, and vice versa. Recently, the favorite gimick for the universe has been to make me subject to the same awkward shift in interest that I watched my once-boyfriend go through. He had an English degree, but wanted nothing more than to be a zoologist. In fact, he’d never wanted anything else, really. But he’d been discouraged by his grades in school and had never pursued math or chemistry, and had wound up stranded with an arts degree, wanting desperately to do science to things. Why on earth would you ever spend so much of your time and money on something that you knew, deep down, wouldn’t help you get anywhere? I thought he was a fool. I still do, really, but now I think I’m an idiot too – why do I have a linguistics degree? And what on earth am I doing getting another one?!

The scariest thing about immersing yourself in something you dislike is that the dissatisfaction forms patterns of thought that can easily extend beyond the subject that sparked them. What starts as a conviction that what you’re doing is meaningless and does no one a lick of good morphs smoothly into pure analytical nihilism – a sort of Nihilism Syndrome, if you will. Finding meaninglessness becomes a cognitive bias, one which is ruthlessly applied to everything in one’s life. I’m sure that linguistics isn’t the only reason why I feel I am an alien to romantic love, spirituality, and academia (which used to be fairly substantial parts of my life), but I do blame it for the thought process that led me to question the meaningfulness of being a doctor, when all doctors really do is prolong someone’s inevitable mortality. When that thought entered my head, it made me sick.

Since the day I thought that, things have been pretty shit, not gonna lie. The cognitive bias that found meaninglessness in everything has so thoroughly permeated my mind that there is nothing I could do that felt like it was real. I go through life feeling like a big monkey on a chunk of rock, surrounded by other big monkeys and a lot of carbon et al, reenacting patterns and responding to drugs. I feel like I am just the electrochemical trace of an endoskeletal bag of tiny living things. Those things I feel, those ideas I have, are all perceptual fictions. I have forgotten how to love. I have forgotten how to have faith in things. And worst of all I have very nearly forgotten how to forget how weird things really are. This has taken away my ability to have intimate relationships, because bodies and feelings are too weird. It has trivialized the work I have done and want to do for other people. It has stripped me of many of the things that made it beautiful for me to be alive.

The worst part about the Nihilism Syndrome is that, though it can find meaninglessness in anything, it’s not going to really affect anything you don’t think about often – so, logically, what it will affect are those things to which you do give your attention and care. For me, these things are usually considered to be the most powerful and important aspects of being a human being. Now, love is tainted by the sour taste of loss, and the blithe notion that most relationships end in heartbreak or death (and the best end in both) – this makes it impossible for me to fling myself casually down the well of romance; I keep myself carefully in the bucket, with a remote-control motor on the winch. I stare at friends’ wedding photographs and go, “How does that work?” It’s like I’ve lost something key to being a social animal. I’ve talked myself out of love.

There are a few things left to me – friendship and singing have yet to be lost, and despite my complaining I somehow manage to be a tolerably upbeat walking monkey – but in the space between these last footholds I have on the cliff face of normality, I can see the bottomless pit of nihilism waiting to swallow me whole. Sometimes, I can hear the footholds crumbling, and the sloughing of their dust makes a dry little whyyyyyyy as it falls away to darkness.

I can’t decide whether it’s the worst part or the best part, the fact that I’m the only one who can get me back to the mindset where humans are supposed to live. Not only that I’m the only one, but also that it’s only through actively denying the existence of that void that I can ever regain any marginal claim on animal happiness. And I mean, I’ve seen the void. I’ve stared at it. I’ve feared it and worried about it and lived with it for so long that saying it’s not the answer, and that rather the animal, chemical, carbonic thing I am is the answer, seems nigh on impossible. I’m looking up that cliff face and it looks smooth and cold as sanded marble. It is orthogonal to easy. Somehow, I’m going to have to develop the non-metaphorical version of sticky hands, or a flying carpet, or some convenient elven rope, and though I think I know how to do it, it’s not going to be easy. Especially because, if I treat the void as something that I must climb away from, I will still know that it is real. Somehow, I have to find it fictitious.

Logically….

Logically, nihilism, like all philosophies, has a problem with reality, vis a vis, it exists only in so long as it can be validly argued for. The type of nihilism I have been afflicted by – the disease I have – stands on the erroneous foundation (which I have had my whole life) that somehow, we are separate from our bodies, and that the ways of the rock are not the ways we need to ascribe to. We are material things. We are built not just to be social, but because we have been social. We are built not only to do, but because we have done. And perhaps as a recursive consequence or instigator, we are able to ask why. And sometimes the answer to why is not the thudding, empty answer because, but the light, mind-opening answer, why not? So there is nothing more to us than our monkey selves tooling around on a chunk of rock. Fine! Then there really is nothing better to do than help each other. We have this unstoppable desire to find meaning: perhaps meaning sits in in these electrochemical impulses, and maybe that meaning really is it. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe all you can do is your best. Sure, the chunk of rock doesn’t care. The vacuum of space can’t care. But all those perambulating endoskeletal fleshbags? They care an awful lot. And they do it in the same way that you do, you perambulating endoskeletal fleshbag you. Let reality be electrochemical experiences in your carbon-based world – if there is another, it is but speculation. Live here, Kate. Retrain yourself to live here.

I wish I could end on a more positive, possibly even more articulate, note, but that’s what I’ve got. That’s the best I can do right now. If I stumble upon any answers that seem gloriously applicable, I’ll let you all know.

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3 comments

  1. First – big hugs from across the pond
    Second – Please know that whatever iteration/state/being that Kate is, I always love her and will make her cookies whenever I have the privilege to see her.
    Third – I’m sorry that you are struggling. I went through similar struggles, and I know that both my kids have too. I have said repeatedly to Mags that I think the high school thru after college is one of the toughest times to slog through.
    I don’t know that I have any real wisdom, other than someone with as many abilities and brains as you have will probably always struggle with finding a single direction.
    I hope you can give yourself some room to explore possibilities. One possibility may be that you will be content to do something for a while and then move on to something else. Just because many people settle into a specific line of study or work for their lives doesn’t mean you need to.
    Fourth – I love the Kate I knew back in high school and continue to love Kate through all the changes and challenges she goes through. That won’t change.

    Your Emergency Back Up Mom

    1. Robin, I love you so much. You always have the best words of wisdom. *massive hug* Speaking of which, I’ll be in town from the 13th to the morning of the 18th – when shall I stop by?

      Much love,

      Kate

      1. Woot! I’m so thrilled to get to see you! We’ll be in and out on the 13th, going to get Mags at DIA that day. If you come by on Sun. Dec. 14 you can see all three of us! Brunch maybe? Dinner? Whatever works for you. Squeeeeeee! Can’t wait!
        Love,
        Robin

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