Thursday, January 30, 2014

Confessions of a Nihilist

I went away to college at the University of California, Berkeley in the mid-sixties. It didn’t take me long to become a nihilist, and I was proud of it. I had become the master of my own fate with one swift decision! Nihilism boldly proclaimed that there was no truth, and therefore I wasn’t bound by others’ opinions. They were cattle promoting the petty opinions of cattle to control those who sought freedom the cattle.

Nihilism is simple. What you see is what you get, and that’s it! If everything evolved through chance circumstances, then there isn’t a higher design or a blueprint by which I have to live, and morality is just a desperate, pathetic attempt to fill the void. But I assured myself that I could face the void and out of it create my own purpose for living.

The groundwork for my endorsement of the nothingness of nihilism had already been laid. I began seeing a psychologist at the impressionable age of fifteen. During the course of these visits, it became apparent that my upbringing was the reason for my internal struggles and even my values. From this analysis, I decided that I had to free myself from its effects so that I could experience the intrinsic joys of life. I had to shatter the eggshell that held me in my rut. Although I had never heard of the word at that time, nihilism promised to do this very thing. It would negate my feelings of guilt and shame, predicated on some mythical narrative. Nihilism boldly proclaimed that there was no objective standard of judgment. Consequently, I was “numero uno,” and no one was in a position to judge me!

The high school assemblies had made me sick. A group of smug, self-satisfied students were routinely paraded upon the stage. A speaker would make a few preliminary remarks about why this lineup of charlatans was worthy of special recognition. Either they had spent weeks preparing the yearbook or had served faithfully within the school government or had represented the school in some event that made it look good. The students would then give a two minute speech thanking the school and the teachers for making this revolting awards ceremony possible.

The reason they had “sacrificed” was totally about them! They didn’t sacrifice. Their work was merely a disingenuous ploy to elevate themselves. Now they were able to reassure themselves that they were superior to the “low life.”

It was a grotesque game, made even more grotesque by the complicity of the teachers. These lackeys understandably wanted to reward those students who made their own performance look good. There was no virtue in this! They were merely scratching each other’s back! They were afraid to face the truth of their own meaninglessness, and I had to sit through it!

A few months at Berkeley taught me to describe this charade, which I had been made to endure, in a more respectable way: “the will to power.” This was Friedrich Nietzsche’s contention. The high school had used such assemblies to covertly exert its power over the students; the students complied because of the recognition they received. They were the “winners,” but there were also losers.

At first, my nihilistic insight was exhilarating! There is no truth, just our paradigms. I was now free to invent my own paradigms. This understanding became my “Declaration of Independence.” I was free from the enslavement to the opinions of others, opinions that had contributed to my negative feelings about myself. I determined that I would live according to the truth. The truth was that there was no truth. I was now the creator of my moral world, and that was fine with me!

Meanwhile, many at Berkeley were climbing on board the counter-culture movement. I myself had one foot on that bandwagon. I agreed with the movement’s radical critique of our corrupt Western culture. However, I wasn’t going to buy into someone else’s “ism.” Let others protest for a “better” society, or for whatever made them feel good about themselves, but I knew the score! Whether it was demonstrating, feeding the hungry, or working on the yearbook, it was still all about them! There was no sacrifice involved, nor should there be. They were doing exactly what they wanted to do. It was “will to power” pure and simple!

It seemed like the most authentic thing to do was to “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow I die!” Reality consisted of animal instinct alone. Not following this instinct was to live a sanctimonious lie, trying to manipulate others into bestowing non-existent respect in exchange for valueless actions.

However, I felt alone in my cynicism, but wasn’t this the price that the visionary had to pay? Zarathustra was misunderstood and rejected; Jesus was crucified; Socrates was forced to drink hemlock. Why should it be any different for me? Yet it still hurt despite my certainty that I was among the few enlightened ones. However, this wasn’t the main problem with my new-found faith.

The Free Sex League was already in full throttle and its president was in my philosophy class. She was gorgeous, and so I determined to ask her out for a “date.” I was convinced that freedom was best actualized in the midst of the pursuit of passion. If this was what I wanted, I should go for it!

She seemed to have a boyfriend, but why should this pose an obstacle? Along with virtue, sexual faithfulness was part of our antiquated evolutionary inheritance, and there was no reason for me to remain a slave to its dictates. I could decide which biological promptings I wanted to follow and which to ignore, and I did. “Faithfulness” was one I’d ignore, and I convinced myself that Cynthia (pseudonym) would do likewise.

I put together a string of one-liners for the occasion. Armed with one of these, I’d make my approach after class. However, when the occasion presented itself, none of them ever seemed right. Summer arrived and with it the end of the philosophy course without my having found the much sought after killer phrase.
I was discouraged by my failure of will, and there were many other such failures. I’d just have to try harder. I knew it was inevitable that I’d succeed, and eventually I did, at least superficially.

It wasn’t an enjoyable experience. Even though the woman wasn’t contemptuous of my awkward inexperience, I was painfully self-conscious of every thought, smell, and movement. The discomfort was so great that I looked forward to escaping the scene of my “conquest.” The experience fell far short of the power and freedom that I had anticipated. However, I was sure that the fault was not in my philosophy but in me. I was just too sensitive and inhibited. The freedom I sought was just around the corner. At least that’s what I told myself.

This was followed by other similar “conquests.” If self-consciousness wasn’t the problem, then it was my conscience that would deliver the kibosh. I felt guilty for treating my “catch” like a hamburger, something to merely sample as I moved along to the next “Big Mac.”

On one occasion, I just had to hastily abandon the hapless woman after she had opened herself so trustingly to me. The pain I had caused her remained with me. As strenuously as I’d exert my “will to power,” I couldn’t rationalize the discomfort away.

These experiences threw me into a crisis of faith. Not only had I failed to achieve the one thing I sought—pleasure—but my nihilism was beginning to undergo a severe internal cross-examination. If I created my own reality and the concepts of guilt, shame, honor and integrity were all arbitrary inventions, then why couldn’t I change my feelings? Despite my repeated self-affirmation that my conscience was merely a vestigial organ that had outlived its usefulness, I couldn’t quiet it. Besides this, I found myself craving what I had rejected—honor and integrity.

I had found within myself a script that I couldn’t rewrite. Should I regard the script as something my parents had written into my baby flesh? If it was just a matter of my early programming, perhaps I should continue to try to combat it. But perhaps it was deeper and indelibly written. Was I fighting against my own nature? If this was the case, I was trying to move a mountain that wouldn’t budge.

At my next institution of “higher” learning, I joined a sensitivity group. It soon became obvious that our leader was on the prowl, and one of the prey called him on it. He candidly admitted that he used these groups to fulfill his sexual appetite. Both he and his wife, who was also a professional, had chosen this lifestyle, but they also decided to “ask no questions, tell no lies.” They would engage in their own sexual trysts but keep them discretely hidden from each other.

During a subsequent sensitivity session, our leader explained why they had to maintain a cloak of secrecy despite their mutual consent to an open marriage. He had once unexpectedly returned home to find his wife entering their sanctuary with her latest triumph. This had resulted in his two week hospitalization on a psych ward.
Was our leader over-sensitive as I had deemed myself, or was there something intrinsic to our human nature that set limits? Were we murdering ourselves when we failed to live by these warning signs?

For instance, in the early seventies, I lived on several kibbutzim. The story was always the same. Many of these collective farms had been settled by European Jews inculcated by a severe form of socialism. They had believed that any form of ownership was illegitimate. This included marriage and children. Consequently, they didn’t marry and didn’t claim any children as their own. However, this situation didn’t last. They all eventually settled down with their own spouses and children, although the children would return at night to sleep with their own peers in common housing.

I was coming to the conclusion that there was a compelling, universal script. If we fail to read its lines properly, we get whacked or even booted from the play. Rather than the nothingness of nihilism, I was finding a somethingness with which I had to contend.

Turning back from nothingness was a relief on one level. It had failed to deliver and cast me into depression. But rejecting it represented a terrible defeat. It meant that I was wrong and that all those smug, mindless high school students had been right. It also meant that instead of having stood against smugness and superficiality; it was against my own hurting nature that I had rebelled!

Nihilism had rejected too much. There were aspects of the human condition that I had to accept. I was like the goldfish that jumped out of his tank because he wanted freedom. The goldfish didn’t realize that his freedom and well-being were maximized within the tank. Yes, his gills, fins, and the fish-tank imposed limitations, but living without concern for these realities imposed greater limitations.

Freedom cannot exist without limitations. I once tried to play a game of chess without rules. Of course, it ended suddenly without any satisfaction. There were things I couldn’t live without. I was a goldfish who needed a fish-tank especially designed to my nature, but what kind of tank did this nature require?

This was a bitter pill. I had been “free,” but now I’d have to live by the dictates of impersonal rules. But Buddhists do so without any qualms. The Buddha had taught the necessity for right living and right thinking, and that by violating these moral laws, we’d have to deal with the consequences or karma. It’s similar to violating gravity. If you jump off a building, you have to deal with the implications of the law of gravity. This seemed reasonable.

Likewise, the psychologist Abraham Maslow talked about a hierarchy of needs. He recognized that the most fulfilled people were those who were sacrificing themselves in one form or another for the welfare of others. They followed the laws of their conscience and performed acts of love. There was nothing glorious about it, but it was better than being the goldfish flapping on dry land. If we can obtain peace of mind by following certain moral principles, what more can we ask for? 

Nevertheless, it felt like “playing the game” all over again. Was I going to have to work on the HS yearbook? Probably not! The laws didn’t seem to be that specific. Nevertheless, my heart and mind had little taste for them. These weren’t laws I wanted to follow; but rather, laws I had to follow. Under these circumstances, how could I feel good about doing the “right thing?” My biology was forcing me to do it. I was performing out of duress.

I volunteered for the West Oakland Project. This program arranged for Berkeley students to become teachers’ assistants in some of the most difficult high schools. It seemed like a beneficial program, and I derived some satisfaction from it. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was participating in a gross charade. Ostensibly, I was traveling to Oakland at least once a week because I cared. Did I care? I had certain feelings of caring, but I was following these feelings out of my own need to feel good about myself. Reluctantly, I admitted to myself that I derived some sense of worth from the program. But I didn’t believe in what I was doing! I was living a schizoid existence. My biologically determined feelings were saying one thing while my intellect was baulking. My feelings were somewhat assuaged, but my mind was left crying out for a rationale. None of my questions had been answered—“Why live? Why build a better society if there’s no truth or ethics?”

Somehow, I had to bring head and heart into sync. Loving others because it made me feel good seemed oxymoronic. Love is for the other person, but I found that I was doing it for purely self-centered reasons. I was split in two. My head was telling me, “You’re a hypocrite. You act in a loving way, but it’s still all about you!” My feelings were a slave to biological determinism. I was living morally, but only because I had to.

If morality was just a law, perhaps I should challenge it as we do gravity. We build elevators to carry us up against its pull to the fortieth floor. We build planes that laugh at gravity. Shouldn’t we also laugh at morality? If morality is just a law, why should it demand my allegiance? If arbitrary social mores are inadequate to command our loyalty, should the biological laws of the conscience be any more authoritative? What if they are part of my nature!

I felt like a Jew who had crept into a Nazi rally. I didn’t belong in the West Oakland Project. I was sure that someone would ask me what I was doing there, and my charade would be discovered to my intense embarrassment.

That day didn’t tarry. My teacher invited me to a Thanksgiving celebration at his home. A number of other teachers and neighbors were present. They were all interested in the student phenomenon at the Berkeley campus. Suddenly attention shifted to me.

“What is it that motivates the Berkeley students in their activism?” a teacher shot at me.

“Personal need for a sense of worth and well-being,” I fired back. I immediately realized that this wasn’t the answer he was looking for. The teacher had been fishing for some incisive critique of our corrupt bourgeois society. I felt uncomfortable. I feared the next question would be, “Is this why you’re volunteering in the West Oakland Project?” Mercifully, that question never came.

Both nihilism and the slavish obedience to a moral sense or the biological laws of the conscience had failed me. There had to be a greater pursuit, something to dispel the malaise. Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and psychotherapist, had noticed that without a goal, his fellow inmates quickly deteriorated both physically and psychologically. Armed with this perception, he tried to encourage his compatriots to adopt a goal, any goal, which would get them through their present hell.

This might have been fine for Frankl, but I knew that I couldn’t just invent my purpose in life. I was able to do that as a youthful fan as I arbitrarily invested myself in the fate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. But invention would no longer suffice; it had to be a matter of discovery. There had to be something real out there. Biological survival or bodily comfort wasn’t enough to excite me. But simply wanting to find truth and meaning didn’t prove that it existed.

Were there any indications of a transcendental reality? C.S. Lewis talked about the correspondence between needs and fulfillments. We hunger, and happily there is a perfect answer to our hunger—food! We thirst and there is drink. We tire and there’s sleep. Was there perhaps also a perfect Object for our metaphysical cravings? If so, I was convinced that it couldn’t be an impersonal force. Gravity is a great force, but it only attracts objects together according to one mindless formula! Impersonal forces are all stupid! They don’t perceive and readjust. They just mindlessly continue doing the same thing. I couldn’t devote myself to Gravity!

The Being I required had to be able to elicit my devotion and satisfy my intellect. This Being had to be the source of all truth, love, and peace. If only the source of truth and not love, it was robotic and couldn’t secure my devotion. If it lacked the ability to give me peace, then it couldn’t command my complete allegiance. I’d have to search elsewhere for my peace. But more prosaically, this Being had to embrace my pain and alienation and rescue me from the darkness of my confusion. This very thing He did some years later when He rescued me from a hungry chain saw and embraced me in the midst of a pool of blood. I was now His.

In Him, head and heart are now united. Love and justice now feel right because they are right. Living faithfully with our own spouse is not only intuitively correct, but it also accords with truth. Yes, it touches our heart to see a man who has stuck by the side of his senile wife. We sense a transcendent dignity in this. However, if life stops at the grave, such self-sacrifice is foolish.  

Last month, as I walked down a busy commercial street in my neighborhood, I was snapped out of my reverie by a loud altercation. A burley man was in the process of dragging a driver out of his limo. Several bystanders were clamoring for a fight. I hastily looked around for a policeman. Not finding one, I began to scream at the top of my lungs, “You’re under arrest. You’re under arrest!” as I ran in their direction. The burley man fled as the limo driver recovered and drove off.

If I had been following moral laws alone, I would have gone in the opposite direction. The “law” of the burley male presented a greater threat to my well-being than the law of my conscience, which would merely have reminded me that I messed up yet once again.

God is the necessary foundation for all knowing and acting. In Him obedience becomes both a joy and a service to Truth. Many have performed self-sacrificial acts, but I don’t believe that they could have performed them with the joy that David Prital, a Holocaust survivor, described.

Desperately seeking shelter in the Ukraine, Prital encountered a Baptist in the fields. Bringing Prital home to his wife, he declared, “God brought an important guest to our house. We should thank God for this blessing.” They prayed and read a chapter from the Bible before their meal. Prital later confessed, “Here it is…this is the big secret. It is this eternal book that raised their morality to such unbelievable heights. It is this very book that filled their hearts with love for the Jews.” (The Righteous, the Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust, Martin Gilbert, Henry Holt and Company, NY, NY, 2004, pg. 13)

Only a personal God will do! Only the Messiah, the Savior, can unite heart and intellect to enable us to live the life we know we aught.

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