Hi there! I have a friend who is suffering from severe nihilism following a falling out with religion. I was wondering if you could recommend any books that would help provide structure and meaning?
It’s really unfortunate that our society isn’t better equipped to offer people philosophical support and outlets of meaning outside of religion. We are presented with this shitty dichotomy–and it’s heavily reinforced in movies and TV–where you’re either naive and religious or you’re cold and hard and nihilistic. But that’s just, like, so not true.
I’ve written before on how I personally strive to find meaning and purpose in my life, but I would also recommend checking out some good ol’ fashion existentialism (e.g. de Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus, Merleau-Ponty, etc. I’ve written about the differences between nihilism and existentialism here), or some existential psychology. Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning is a must-read. It vividly and heart-breakingly chronicles his story of surviving the Holocaust and the life-lessons he learned as a result, including the importance of combating nihilism. Here’s a post I did that includes a video of Frankl talking about the emptiness of living one’s life for money. For some accessible contemporary literature, I would recommend The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith and The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. Both of these books look at ancient philosophical traditions and modern psychological research to explore how we can find meaning. David Foster Wallace’s commencement address ‘This is Water’ is always a heartening nihilist-fighter. And, of course, for some cosmic perspective, you gotta turn to Carl Sagan. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (which he co-wrote with his wife Ann Druyan) and Pale Blue Dot will shoot you through and through with some humble awe for your place in the universe. Hearing his voice always helps drive his points home as well, so watching the Sagan Series might be just what the philosopher ordered.
The reality is that the universe, on the largest of scales, does not care about us. So there’s a seed of truth to nihilism, which means that its specter will continue to loom large over most of us. But the trick, I think, is to resist the temptation to view nihilism as something that swallows everything. It’s challenging to hold competing views simultaneously in our brains. Acknowledging (let alone embracing) a tangled, contradictory mosaic picture of reality is no easy feat for our monkey brains. But I think it’s much closer to how things actually are. Answers are rarely simple. Our brains fight and fight hard to simplify, to categorize, to dichotimize, to fit things into neat little narratives. Which is why there’s a real temptation to think that either EVERYTHING is inherently meaningful, or NOTHING is inherently meaningful; we have to turn to either RELIGION or NIHILISM. Many of the works I recommended above help us grapple with the messy gray areas that make up the spaces between these extremes. But internalizing their messages is often easier said than done. Much of what I’ve mentioned so far has also been highly theoretical. A lot of the work to find and feel meaning/purpose comes through praxis, which can include therapy and medication and creative outlets and support groups and social justice work and all sorts of other things. Sometimes a practical and engaged focus can help make the theoretical worries feel more tangible and manageable.
Hope some of these resources help. Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the nihilists bite!