Nihilism: the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless. I’m going to argue that a large portion of America is dealing with this issue and it’s leading to all sorts of problems. According to the CDC suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-24 year old adults in the U.S.1 It should come as no surprise then, that people between the ages 18-25 have the highest cases of depression.2 I also find it practically absurd that in a country which is both “advanced” and unimaginably wealthy, we also have suicide rates on par or greater than 3rd world countries (5x higher than Guatemala!3). Now my evidence may be totally inadmissible and possibly interpreted poorly, yet you have to stop believing in almost everything to throw your life away right? Where do those thoughts start? Is there a deeper root cause?
Personally I’ve had my own spat fighting off the rising thoughts of nihilism. A case of pneumonia and a lack of companionship for the month of July left me with an abundance of time. Strange things begin to take place when you’re bedridden in a 3rd world country; with no T.V., a cold(ish) room, and very limited internet you find that silence creeps into the covers with you. There aren’t enough things to distract your mind and eventually thoughts turn to existential and spiritual issues. I asked myself what I was doing, why I was there, and what was the point of all this really? I found there were not enough material things to distract me from my non-material issues.
Unfortunately, the existence of these thoughts within the stifling (or infinitely freeing) confines of poverty mean they can take on a rather depressing and gray nature; choices are limited, things seem harder, and I couldn’t keep the damn floor clean. My soul was searching for an answer the world couldn’t provide. In two weeks I went from confident and happy, to cold and suffering in the depths of my own personal Hades. But to be overly dramatic, there was a light in the darkness; philosophy books, religion, and other people began to light a path out of the underworld, out of my pointless suffering. I escaped, having only glimpsed what so many others deal with for years.
Why am I telling you this? Because I was extremely lucky, blessed, whatever – to be given that opportunity of time, despite the darkness that came with the territory. I had discovered just how incredibly attached I had become to things and empirical outcomes. To quote Tyler Durden from Fight Club, “the things you own, end up owning you.”4 Slowly, with the help of people around me, I’ve begun to give up the material things in favor of freedom. I’ve transformed my pointless suffering into meaningful suffering.
George Orwell notes in The Road to Wiggan Pier that, “[the] truth is that many of the qualities we admire in human beings can only function in opposition to some kind of disaster, pain, or difficulty; but the tendency of mechanical progress is to eliminate disaster, pain, and difficulty.”5 Today our material progress has brought us to the point of being able to order something from our bed and have it delivered to our door the same day. Are we to find difficulty in online ordering? Its almost become ingrained in us to buy and all the better if we don’t even have to leave our house to do it. Sadly this led me (and I presume many others) to erect the belief that “man can survive on bread alone” and eventually this physical overabundance carries us across our own personal Styx.
Can we believe that by shedding all the non-essential, time wasting, noise creating stuff, we can actually begin to live and think in healthy solitude, not a materials induced loneliness? America is growing soft in it’s moral, spiritual and physical wealth and we are finding that Solzhenitsyn was correct in saying, “[…] people are corrupted in freedom […] sometimes even more effectively than in camp.”6 And while the Gulag was and still remains no laughing matter, perhaps we should take a note from the old maxim that “less is more,” especially so when it comes to our spiritual and mental well being.
Tragically, the obsession of things doesn’t start and end in America. It too is prevalent here in Guatemala (and I’m guessing around the world), even unto the reaches of the remote areas in which we live. As Reilly sadly related in his blog entitled “Wednesday Night Dinner,” money and its mythical power hold sway over the vast majority, more so among the poor, who may give it too much power. This is only reinforced by popular media, news, and “experts” claiming that their advice or opinion will fix your financial problems and by extension all others. Fortunately I think we are starting to realize that the emperor’s new clothes are ill-fitting indeed and that the, “same streak of soggy half-baked insincerity runs through all ‘advanced’ opinion.”7
I wish all of you could come and experience what I experience here as my words can only be so convincing. However, I urge you and others that you may know to live a little poorer. We all experience suffering to some degree, but perhaps we can exchange the suffering of our mental state – our soul – for a relatively small amount of physical suffering. Like me, you may find that it takes you to a dark place indeed, but it’s very possible that to know what contentedness means is to know its exact opposite.
And this is what makes First Things Foundation more than some NGO or another foreign aid foundation. Our work doesn’t stop at the material, but reaches into the fabric of our individual realities; shaping and reshaping our perceptions, thoughts, and what is truly important. I invite you all to join in with us on this journey, especially as we close in on Christmas and the new year. God bless.
1 "Ten Leading Causes of Death and Injury." Centers for Disease Control, www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide/statistics/. Accessed 8 Dec. 2017. 2 "Major Depression among Adults." National Institute of Mental Health, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/major-depression-among -adults.shtml. Accessed 8 Dec. 2017. 3 "Suicide Rates (per 100 000 Population)." World Health Organization, www.who.int/gho/mental_health/suicide_rates/en/. Accessed 8 Dec. 2017. 4 Fight Club. Directed by David Fincher, performance by Brad Pitt, 1999. 5,7 Orwell, George. The Road to Wiggan Pier. Reprint ed., Harcourt / Brace, 1958. 6 Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. The Gulag Archipelago. Abridged ed., Random House, 2011.