Nihilism, College and a Way Forward
by Chris Foley | published Oct. 28th, 2019
Do you remember the first time you ever used a microscope? That grade-school teacher, that you can't seem to remember the name of, was showing you what a cell looked like up close. You were enthralled by the cell’s minuscule majesty: so tiny, yet so complex and unreal. For as amazing as it was back then, there’s a problem with your past enthusiasm now. By the time you walked out of class, like me, you would have already forgotten about that cell and definitely never thought about it since.
By the same logic, Earth is too tiny and insignificant to matter to the universe. Although I've never experienced it, I'd be willing to argue that floating through space feels just as helpless as floating through college. Many college students find themselves asking, as such a tiny part of college, the earth and the universe, how do I matter? Nihilism would tell you that you don’t. Nihilism, however, would also happen to have the answers.
What is Nihilism?
Nihilism is the philosophical belief that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless. Essentially, everything that we do from now until the end of time has no meaning because the universe is an uncaring, ruthless void and we’re all going to be nothing someday. Dreadful, right?
“Maybe!” said existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre, an avid proponent of existentialism, attempts to solve nihilism by arguing that we as beings exist first, and then gain meaning through our life and experience. This evolves the idea of nihilism, saying that nothing inherently matters, but also that we have the ability to give things meaning. Value is dictated by you. Not so dreadful, right?
Sartre actually disagrees. If everything exists for no reason, then there are no absolutes to abide by: there’s no rules, justice or order. From nihilism to existentialism is a transition from terrifying meaninglessness to horrifying freedom.
Freedom means that you get to choose your own future, create your own moral code and live the life that you feel gives you value. But, it also means that there’s no authority to guide your decisions. In fact, any authority — Sartre argues — is fake because people with authority are people just like you: people without any answers. Accepting authority means accepting the notion that something out there has meaning that you yourself didn’t give to it. You aren’t leading a life where you are giving things value on your own.
Sartre coined this type of life as living “authentically.” It means that you have agency of your own in order to make your own decisions, by yourself, free of any fake authority that might want to sway you in a different direction.
This is where these philosophical principles start to bleed into our college lives.
College Students, Nihilism and Depression
When you got to college, you may have found out the hard way that freedom can be terrifying. Your parents weren't around to tell you what to eat and your classes didn't have attendance policies, so you gained the Freshman 15 and skipped every class that wasn't an exam until you failed. You thought comfort and relaxation are what you wanted, but you've found through experience that what you authentically valued was good health and grades.
Your newfound college freedom means that every aspect of your life is up to you. That’s wonderful, but studies have shown that this freedom found in college students is what leads to the widespread plague of college-aged depression.
This freedom is the feeling of existential dread, and it leads to and is a companion of depression. Existential dread occurs when it feels like the rug got pulled out from under you. College is full of potential triggers for existential dread, like choosing a major and taking exams.
Let’s assume that you chose a major, you’re confident about your choice, and you’re in your second year. It’s been great so far, but then you take your first “serious” class — the one in which only true members of your major will be able to thrive.
You bomb the first exam. You studied more than ever. You aren’t good enough. You aren’t meant for this. Your life is a lie. Your heart pounds. You can’t breathe.
By failing that exam you’ve officially proved that this major isn’t for you, your destiny is fake, there’s something wrong with you, you’ve wasted so much money on the first year of college, everyone in your life is going to be disappointed in you and you’re to blame for all of your failures.
That terror, that existential dread, is real. It permeates the lives and dreams of students around the world, driving the student masses to existential depression. Conflating the failure of a single exam to an existential crisis seems extreme, but with so much money, time invested and dignity on the line, these feelings culminate in a way that every college student recognizes.
In order to defeat this feeling of existential dread in your own life, I posit that going beyond existentialism is necessary in order to combat these feelings of meaninglessness, insufficiency and perceived inevitability.
The Golden College Philosophy
Avoidance coping is often the default offense against existential dread, but will only lead to neurological stress on top of your existential stress. Therefore, distracting yourself isn’t a viable option.
The next potential way of solving the problem is acceptance and mindfulness. If you were to accept that nothing matters, that you give meaning to your own life and focus on the ways that you can make yourself and potentially others happy, then you’ll have lived a good, authentic life. This is often referred to as optimistic nihilism.
Interestingly enough, however, Friedrich Nietzsche — the father of nihilism — gives us the best, most fulfilling option.
In his published book of notes, "The Will to Power Book I," Nietzsche writes, "All the values by means of which we have tried so far to render the world estimable for ourselves and which then proved inapplicable and therefore devaluated the world ... What we find here is still the hyperbolic naivete of man: positing himself as the meaning and measure of the value of things."
What this passage tells us is that nothing matters so far. We as humans have tried to fit a square peg into a round hole, and it has led us to thinking that nothing will ever work, even when we’ve yet to pick up the round peg. What would the round peg look like, then?
We must redefine what fundamentally matters. It’s not you, me or the human race. What fundamentally matters is life. If it’s a living thing, it matters. In order to give value to life, we must understand what connects us all together.
Ethics philosophers argue that the connecting factor between all life is suffering. No matter if a living thing is a mouse or a human, what connects us all is the capacity to suffer — this is what allows humans to empathize with a dog put down in a shelter just as much as we can empathize with a human hurricane victim. As humans, however, we have the rare capacity to alleviate suffering. This ability is a gift and we must choose to use it wisely. Our capacity is great and we must not squander the opportunity.
Sartre and other existentialists tell us to live an authentic life and to defy external authority, so that you'll be able to climb the mountain of life and carry others on your back on the way up. If you're looking to start climbing, you'll need to take the first steps of applying these philosophical values to your life.
Practical application can be found in all aspects of your life, but a particularly potent aspect for college students is social media. Mountains of evidence support that social media causes depression, anxiety and existential dread in the minds of youth. Applying the philosophy of authenticity to social media, the issue becomes highlighted: we’re allowing influencers, friends and companies to leverage false authority over our decisions and daily lives. These entities are put on a pedestal that we as a society placed at their feet.
Modern college-aged depression often stems from the inability to be like that influencer, like your social media persona and the struggle to be an authentic individual. Depression is being anyone who isn’t truly, authentically you. Your uniqueness is a great strength that has been turned into a devastating weakness.
If we are all to be considered unique snowflakes, then we all melt in our own way too, and therefore heal in our own ways. I don’t expect this article to have sparked the soul of every reader; however, I do hope that the philosophy presented in this article has helped at least one person put their potential into perspective. If nothing else, live life authentically and prevail.