A true nihilist would kill themselves. Or so, this is how the argument goes.
In all honesty, I’m wrestling deeply from some troubling implications that came out of a conversation I just had. Last night, in fact. I have a friend, who describes himself as a nihilist, but not a true nihilist. He has values, he just doesn’t think there is any objective meaning, assuming I understand him correctly.
He has a mental condition, from what I gather, depression. I too have a mental condition, of course schizoaffective disorder.
I don’t understand his perspective, though. Perhaps it’s the curse of knowledge, that crazy fallacy: You think you can understand, because you know certain things, another perspective, but that knowledge you have ironically prevents you from understanding the perspective of someone who doesn’t have the specific knowledge you have.
I went out with this friend to take photos, hopefully for my cover, for one of my books. I still have high hopes about this collaboration, by the way, despite how complicated and crazy this friendship is. The conversation started out well enough, the experience started out well enough. We went to Wendy’s, hung out at Sam Wellers Book Works, went back to Wendy’s, went to Smith’s, and made jokes and talked.
But eventually the conversation took a turn.
This is my understanding of my friend’s philosophy: Because he seeks to have as little values as possible, because he doesn’t believe in ideals or the importance of meaning, because, like an existentialist minor, he thinks that meaning doesn’t actually objectively exist, it can be hard to relate to him for me personally because I have a lot of values, and they are the brick and mortar of my own meaning in my life. I enjoy listening to this friend at a philosophical level, but practically speaking I get disturbed, because the consequences are real.
Case in point: We started talking about homeless people. I serve homeless people proudly. I serve them with The Legacy Initiative. As such, I’m used to people talking destructively about the homeless, but I wouldn’t expect it as much from a friend. Perhaps simply a bias, in the sense that I think friends would side with me more, but certainly, that wasn’t the case in this experience.
We started talking about the homeless. He said he didn’t like homeless people after I said I serve them. This struck a chord with me, hit a nerve, for obvious reasons. One thing to keep in mind about this person is they don’t believe in pity, in appreciating a person because you simply pity them. You don’t, according to this friend, help a person because you pity them. Essentially, the argument justifies not helping someone if you pity them, or if it’s a matter of pity.
I find this apathetic, but let me continue with the story: He said he didn’t like homeless people, and somehow, I realized he was talking about panhandlers. I quickly pointed out that the situation with panhandlers is different. Most of them are probably scams. I’ve heard that panhandlers actually aren’t scammers, are genuinely in need, because why would someone do something so humiliating for money? But I didn’t mention that because it seemed irrelevant and I couldn’t back it up. I told him that panhandlers in fact misrepresent the homeless. Not sure if it did any good, but there you have it.
When we shifted the conversation to the more gray area of panhandlers and less attached issue of the homeless, who, I again, proudly serve, it seemed like a victory. But as I listened to this friend talk, I realized what was at stake: Empathy, connection, even love and understanding and the desire to care. I realized this when he complained about a panhandler who he knew who basically gave up on life because his daughter died. He said you don’t just give up on life and put your burdens on everyone else, expecting them to serve you, give you money, care for you, etc. That’s not how society works.
I understood this point. Ethically speaking, he has a point: It is problematic to put your burdens on someone else, and this is one thing I find troubling about panhandlers. But I was aware of the bigger issues at stake, one being the fact that I was sensing complete and utter apathy, I suppose something I don’t tolerate. Maybe Karl Popper’s paradox, of being intolerant to intolerance, but there you have it. So, I blurted out, in a panicked moment, in a cornered moment, knowing I’d lost the argument, with my values compromised, “Then why don’t you just tell them to kill themselves!” In the moment, there was much more to the conversation that led to this outburst, but it’s difficult to reconstruct: but just understand the underlying principle of apathy was clear and the lack of compassion was apparent, and that’s how I choose not to live my life (being apathetic).
I found out later that this comment really bothered this person. I found out it was because this person doesn’t want to hurt someone, or anyone.
Hence the irony behind being a “nihilist.” This person is not actually a nihilist, and they don’t understand how nihilism works, but that’s beside the point. The point, is rather, that when you think like this, you have a hard time caring for others which causes you to say harsh things, and yet you get offended if your own character and values are questioned. I don’t like this, shall we say, double standard, because I can’t think of the right phrase for such an attitude. But in all honesty, this hits to the core of one of the problems I have with understanding this friend.
When I was intense with the comment about suicide, I noticed my attitude changed. As we continued walking around town, someone stopped us asking for money for food or food itself. In all honesty, if I’d been alone, I would have helped them or tried to help them, but I snapped, given the circumstances and the way the conversation was going, “We just had this conversation,” and kept walking, essentially saying no to this individual. It was a prick thing to do, but I was fucking pissed. I was angry because this friend’s attitude was limiting my own actions, and suppressing my desire to be kind and gracious to others.
He told me, lectured me in fact, that you don’t just say stuff like that, and I told him, why not? And I was thinking, it was no better than something he’d do. We went back to the comment about telling a panhandler to commit suicide, and I told him I have no problem ethically doing this. I wasn’t speaking for me: I wouldn’t do that. But I was channeling the dangerous side of my mental illness. This was proven when I was being irreverent around the Mormon church with my comments and when I said, “Shut up,” when someone was yelling about weed out of their car window. These are things I normally wouldn’t have done, but I was upset, and my mental illness was flaring up. Agitation, anxiety, despair, even some suicidal thinking. Certainly, nihilism, a devaluing of my own life.
When I made the one comment to the guy yelling out the window, he said I shouldn’t do that around him because you might get shot, which forced me to say that I’d only do that alone. I knew I’d lost in that moment, but that wasn’t the point: The point was that I noticed again his apathy. If I was going to get myself shot, he wouldn’t be there. This isn’t a problem because I understand his point about not putting your burdens on others: I wouldn’t put people in danger with my attitude. It was more the overall attitude that he’d leave me for dead if it came to that, which is a moral principle I don’t subscribe to, and is something I wouldn’t do for others.
Which leads to a deep philosophical point that’s been brought up multiple times in our conversation: He honestly believes that you shouldn’t care for others in any deep way, which obviously is difficult for me to believe. He also believes that morals are relative, and that everyone will act according to their taste, so to speak: Everyone will do only what they are inclined to do, and nothing more. I don’t have a problem with this in terms of his moral outlook, because I will not judge it, it is standard moral relativism: But I do think that this is a cold way to actually live your life, because it means whatever I think is simply relative, even if it might have immediate and obvious impacts of helping the world. Such as not blowing off someone that needed food because I was pissed and angry and not in the mood to help someone: the destruction of nihilism, the destruction of my values and value system, simply because of a heated conversation.
I told him at one point in the night that I’m used to people criticizing my values, especially as regards the homeless and more importantly need, and I thought this would help make my point clear: Indeed, I’m used to people thinking I’m wasting my time helping the homeless. I’ve been burned by the homeless and panhandlers, for instance, and once I even got heat from my mother for getting the story of a homeless man. But I keep doing it because I care, and it hurts that my mental illness got the best of me and that I symbolically lashed out at the person asking for help, simply because I couldn’t stand my ground.
Anyway, once we found a way to move past that tense part of the conversation, I started talking about will, still upset but trying to find my balance. I told him that my friend has a will and I want to see him express it. I went on and on, and he complained that I wasn’t specific about what I meant with will, or even my later point of potential, for that matter. A few more words were exchanged, and I was getting the impression that he didn’t want to express certain aspects of his mental illness, for many reasons, the very thing I was encouraging: Because he doesn’t want pity, because he doesn’t think you should talk about mental illness, and because he thinks he already expresses his illness enough. Once I heard this, I realized the whole point I was trying to get across had been undermined, and so, feeling a little insulted and slighted, I told him there was no point in explaining what I meant, because he’d already made up his mind about what I thought. This led to him also getting mad at me, but I didn’t care, because he wasn’t interested in what I had to say.
And yet he was interested (the irony). He asked me to pinpoint what I meant by potential. I explained, just to keep it simple, artistic potential, particularly with his film ideas and filming. I told him to make a goal, make a script for instance, and then analyze the elements of the movie and see how he could move past it, look at his underlying principles. He thought this meant simply ideals, which I did also mean, and putting himself in the film, which he said he was already going to do, which again negated everything I was trying to say.
But the night was far from over. We continued talking. Once he finally realized I was simply trying to encourage him even though I was hurt at his comments about the homeless and hurt that I’d lashed out in various ways that night because I was hurt and felt my values had been attacked and because my mental illness got a hold of me and made me crazy with mania and rage, he calmed down and the conversation calmed down, but the night wasn’t over.
Indeed: When I brought up the line about telling a panhandler to commit suicide and told him an underlying reason of why I said it (because I was projecting my own suicidal thoughts into the world), the conversation morphed into a lecture about how you don’t just talk about suicidal thoughts and mental illness. He brought up some valid points, of course: He told me, for instance, don’t see your illness as an illness. He also told me that I could do group therapy. He said that if I expect to be stigmatized then I’m never going to see those who don’t stigmatize. You can’t stigmatize society just because they stigmatize you, was his point.
All of this was true … but the underlying principles were what disturbed me. He was essentially shutting me down, which sadly, I am used to all too often. Not just lecturing me, but shutting me down. Invalidating my experience. Not because his points weren’t right, but because of the underlying philosophy surrounding the issue, his principles that I’ve brought up: You don’t just talk about mental illness. So, how best to explain in summary why this rubbed me wrong: Because indeed, I felt devalued for having an illness. It seemed to me that his points were a way of expressing this idea that mental illness and talking about mental illness openly is what stigmatizes you, and that bothers me, because I am proud of my disease (the irony being that he said we need to accept our disease, which I feel like I have, and feel like it’s a cliché to say this). I really am. I’m proud, and that’s why I want to talk about it openly. But I can’t because I get lectured by even friends, and certainly rejected by people in society. But due to this friend’s values and due to his experience, he just doesn’t understand my experience of having this disease, and what it means for me every day. The stigma is real, and I feel like because he hasn’t experienced it very much (which he says he hasn’t, in fact), the stigma must not be real for me. But that just isn’t true, or a fair statement, and is a judgement. For someone with no values, and thus no judgement, this person judges a ton, but in very convoluted ways.
Now, none of this is an indictment of my friend. In fact, I would say all of this falls more on me than him, even though I can’t stand some of his values and philosophies and outlooks and methods for living. But I would say that the above story is exactly why mental illness is so hard to talk about. It gets messy fast. We aren’t having honest conversations. It’s like we’ve made mental illness valueless, and thus meaningless. And if you define your existence by your mental illness, like I do, then you may as well be a nihilist, because your mind is valueless.
That itself probably sounds convoluted, but here’s my point: Mental illness shouldn’t be this painful to talk about it. I’m tired of people thinking they understand what my mental illness is and how it expresses itself. I’m tired of the fact of having a mental illness causing more pain than the mental illness itself. I’m tired of people not understanding, or caring, or denying my reality. Society gave me this disease … why do they suddenly want to make it seem like it doesn’t exist, after over a decade of being labeled and mistreated as a consequence of the diagnosis? I don’t know what to do with this current shift in my life lately, just that I think it’s all very strange and odd.
So: Meaning. I find meaning in life, I find meaning in my mental illness. But I’m disappointed that the conversation kept going in the direction that it did. I have a lot of growing up to do, but I should be able to communicate better with a young adult like this friend. It shouldn’t be this hard. And yet, even with my skills of language, my illness and more importantly, my experience, hijacks anything productive, and I just end up getting hurt and feeling hurt and getting frustrated and being a kind of hypocrite.
And that’s not okay.
But, I’m not a nihilist, and I will seek to do better.