It seems to me that my life, like surely many people’s lives, resembles the trajectory of modernism to postmodernism (to post-postmodernism?). That is, like many people, when I was a child everything was imbued with a robust intrinsic identity and meaning, both of which could be definitively and determinedly known. One of the most obvious examples of this was the faith in the near omniscience of my parents, and once in school and out of the house, in that of other adults. In the very beginning, there is truly nothing unknown; and though I did not have firsthand knowledge of it, I knew others must. When a child like this, the pronouncements and judgments of parents and adults are absolute, unquestionable, and though sometimes terrifying, an ultimate source of security. There is the recognition of one’s own limits and simultaneously the boundlessness of the abilities of adults, not the least of which was the ability of my parents to make me feel secure and loved.
I know others had very different childhood experiences—something my wife reminds me of regularly, for which I am grateful. Perhaps I was ridiculously naïve; I’m sure plenty of other children either figured it out or at least had premonitions of their parents’ limitations much earlier, but not me. It would not be until my late teens that I really began to question not only my parents’ abilities but the soundness of social institutions more generally. For along with confidence in parents and adults, comes confidence in institutions. I mean institutions such as the church, school, government, business, history, and the unsurpassed, and unsurpassable, greatness of the United States. When young, so many of these seem to work by an intrinsic magic, only to turn later to have been “nothing but” a placebo effect.
The first of those to fall, if we discount the usual childish questioning of the use of school, was the church. Around the age of 16, like many people, I began to question the existence of God. After several years of doing so, I finally was able to admit to myself that there is no God. But this was not great news. Many people raised in an oppressive religious household may feel relief when they give up believing in God. But for me the death of God had radical implications for life. That is, it was a very short chain of inferences from no God to no soul to no afterlife, i.e., no God seemed to entail annihilation of self at death. And this would just not do, but of course there is nothing to be done about it. Somewhat ironically perhaps, before the fear of death engendered by the loss of God, I experienced complete terror at the thought of dying and going to heaven, since all you did in heaven was float around, and since it was heaven, it would be for an eternity. And so one of the earliest dreams I can remember is my dad as Superman having a fistfight with God in our kitchen, the stakes being mortality (and this is perhaps even more ironic since in Christianity Jesus is supposed to be a source of deathlessness).
Of course as time went on, as I got older, the faith in my parents, other adults, and in the other social institutions unraveled more and more. Another early casualty, of course, was the confidence in my parents’ omniscience. Over time you realize other adults contradict them, as do at least some of your experiences or those of friends—something has got to give and the weight of the evidence speaks against their omniscience. And over time you learn other things, too, of course. Politicians don’t have your best interests at heart and the United States is not some great, unproblematic bastion of freedom and opportunity, but instead is built upon and maintained by slavery and various systems of institutionalized oppression. You learn how soul sucking most jobs are and how the whole point of capitalism is to make you feel bad about yourself, i.e., its whole point is to engender want regardless of need, and to make you believe that happiness lies on the other side of a monetary exchange. You discover that all of this is bullshit and you discover that it is up to you to make all of this is as right as possible. And this task is all the more daunting because all of the power and meaning of all the institutions that you used to rely on to contextualize and frame experience have been rendered powerless and meaningless (you found out they were just sugarpills, so now they don’t work). And so you realize that your whole life you have been in free fall and that what at first seemed like solid ground was really something like a hollow mountain itself falling in the emptiness.— Another option, “of course,” would be to engage in some sort of doublethink whereby one attempts to act as if one weren’t really falling, as if all of those institutions were solid and meaningful. But who can do that double-dance? Of course, it seems that I can, at least to some extent, for I’ve got the academic degree, the salaried job, a mortgage, and a lovely wife. Yet…
In a footnote to his translation of Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo, Walter Kaufmann relates an anecdote from someone who knew Nietzsche and who said of him, “He told me…that he always felt himself to have a task….” What that must be like! For this seems to be the root of my problem. That is, at 41 I find myself without a task. Not just any task; what I mean is, there are no tasks of significance giving structure to the narrative of my life. For what do I do now? Aside from raising a family, I’ve accomplished all the society imposed goals I was supposed to. I’ve done the education, been granted the coveted academic professorship, in this last year I even received tenure, my wife and I bought a house, and we are happily married. And suddenly I find myself lacking purpose while I simultaneously experience increasing health issues (chronic pain). The combination of pain and disability would be a challenge on their own, but they are exacerbated by the feeling of purposelessness.
I’m reluctant to write these things; I know how it can come across to say, “Look at what all I have accomplished and acquired, yet I’m not satisfied.” Last year at an academic conference I related these feelings to a friend and (somewhat junior) colleague from another university. He struggled to be sympathetic and it was clear that what I said I was frustrating. It reminds me of the Far Side comic with the jewelry bedecked cow and bull in the nice living room; the cow with drink in hand saying, “Wendell… I’m not content.” Indeed—it’s absurd.
But it’s not. Consider, from the very beginning of your life in contemporary Western society you are, we might say, ensconced in two interconnected things, namely, goal oriented activities and what we might call group consciousness. K through 12 is essentially one long progression of goal oriented activities. You’re always working towards some future end, the next assignment, the next class grade, the next move from elementary to middle to high school. Outside school there is homework, clubs, sports, and if you are lucky, some amount of playtime, which may be more or less structured and goal oriented. And through all of this you are trained to wonder, to worry about, to fret over, what are you going to be when you grow up. One is conditioned to be future oriented, always concerned about the next thing to accomplish. And I don’t say any of this as a result of having parents who were overly preoccupied with making sure every last bit of my time was structured. I was given a great deal of freedom and time to play outside, particularly in the woods for hours on end. But even then, as unstructured as that playtime was, it was always in some sense goal oriented. There were tree forts to build, dry and wet creeks to explore, holes to dig, etc. No. The goal oriented nature of the first part of my life was not due to my parents, at least not especially to them. Rather: The performance of tasks is the intrinsic structure of our society. This is presumably why one of the greatest “evils” in our society is boredom, the having of nothing to do. I realize of course that some of us imbibe this conditioning more thoroughly than others. I am forever asking my wife, “What do you want to do now?” And she is forever answering, “Why do we always have to be doing something?” Nevertheless, she is a well-trained “doer.”
But, of course, when you finish high school you aren’t really finished with the tasks that society has planned for you. One of the central concerns of high school students is going to college, as they have been told that that is the next tasks to complete in order to get where they want to go, namely to adulthood and independence, and happiness. So after high school you take on a new set of tasks: diploma, job, spouse, good pay, house, and all the accoutrements of the good life.
One of the things that characterizes almost all the goals and tasks throughout this long period is what I earlier called group consciousness. That is, as a child and young adult one has very little time alone. Growing up you are usually surrounded by your parents and siblings, at home; and then at school you are always one among many, in the classroom, in the line, and perhaps most uncomfortably in the locker room and bathrooms. If you’re doing something, you’re doing it with others. If something occurs, whether it be mundane, exciting, terrible, boring, etc., is witnessed by a group. Your consciousness is always one consciousness amongst many. While this constant group activity is a source of much anxiety for many, it also provides, without our realizing it, a sense of belonging, group identity, and security. For you can feel consciously insecure around your peers—anxious about their judgments—while simultaneously unconsciously feeling secure among them—a sense of belonging to a group of people who are more or less like you, even when you feel unliked and unpopular and not all like your peers.
At 41 I find both aspects, having important and life structuring goals and participating regularly in group consciousness, largely absent from my life. This is largely due to me—I’m in a sense extremely introverted and selfish with my time—but it is also due to how our society structures lives. The first half or so is shot through with purpose: education, job, independence, spouse, house, family, raising children, seeing them through college, seeing them to independence. While we do not have kids, and while we are not sure when we’ll want to have kids, having them simply to impart purpose is surely a terrible idea.
And so at 41 I find myself struggling with meaning—for I have been trained to believe—or perhaps simply feel or intuit—that meaning comes from the fulfilling of purposes, having and accomplishing tasks, “taking care of business.”
What about my job? I teach four classes a semester with an average of around hundred students total each semester. Are they not my task? Are they not my purpose? Do I not find satisfaction in educating them? This is difficult. I love talking to students about philosophy. I am passionate in the classroom and am confident that if they come to class and engage the material seriously and well, then they’ll come out better people. And one of my deepest wishes is to somehow make the world better than it is. I think teaching can do this; I think philosophy can do this. However, I don’t believe that any test, essay, or words from a student’s mouth can indicate whether they have really grown and improved as people, as citizens, because of my teaching. Because the results of my teaching are so amorphous and unclear, I have a hard time getting behind it as my overarching purpose. Yes. There is the occasional student who demonstrates over time how much of a difference to their lives my teaching has meant. But those are few and far between.
What about philosophical goals? Am I not moved by philosophy? Is there not something that I must say? I think ever since I started studying philosophy formally around the age of 21, I longed to do something great in philosophy. I have been inspired by the genius of Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Dōgen, and many others. I’ve longed somehow be like them, to do something important, to influence the lives of others. Yet I am Socrates enough to know what I don’t know—to know what I’m not….
None of this is really new or unique to me, of course. Perhaps some of the details are, and it is true that not everyone experiences life as I have described it; however, there are many who do. We can see this from all that has been written in the 20th century alone. The rise of existentialism as a philosophical movement in the early 20th century—a movement that confronted head on the apparent absurdity of human existence, its meaninglessness, particularly in a Godless world (though not all existentialists were/are atheists). We can see it in such books such as From Certainty to Uncertainty that describe the progression from the certainties of modernism to the uncertainties of postmodernism and post-Newtonian physics: the uncertainties and non-absolute nature of things that characterize the human condition seem to be mirrored in physical reality itself in the special and general theories of relativity and in quantum theory. We see it in recent books such as Christopher Hamilton’s A Philosophy of Tragedy in which he writes how the meaning and purpose-imbuing nature of religions like Christianity have given way, and how for:
…many [Christianity’s] claims are no longer credible. The discoveries of Darwin, the advance of scientific knowledge of human beings and our understanding of the planet we live on, the unspeakable barbarities that took place during twentieth century, the historicized consciousness of the modern mind, and other things besides, give force to the idea, articulated by Max Weber, that we live in a world that is entzaubert, disenchanted. This is why I think of a book on tragedy as timely.
In this context of disenchantment a variety of nihilisms come to life. Nietzsche was truly prescient in his diagnosis of the meaning and consequence of the death of God (the loss of God as a meaning-giver, as the ultimate writer of life’s narrative and Truth), and the variety of nihilisms that spill forth therefrom.
I, as I suspect many, have felt the “lure” and inevitability of a number of the different kinds of nihilism. In the midst of my midlife crisis a recurring question, a recurring theme, is: What’s the point? What am I doing? Nothing seems exciting or tempting, not even, or perhaps especially not, writing this book. In the last several years I have started it and stopped a number of times. My having the feeling that I’ve accomplished what I’m supposed to have does not completely explain this lack of enthusiasm for my philosophical work, but it does explain some of it, at least. The lack of an outward imposed task, goal, project, purpose has infected my overall feeling toward life more generally. Another part, if not the other half, is my struggle with chronic illness, joint pain (arthritis?) in my feet and hands that doctors cannot figure out and which has compromised my ability to get around well for the past six years. I had already focused on Buddhism to the extent that I had because of issues with my mortality, but the chronic pain pushed me deeper into Buddhism. While this has been a great pleasure, working so much on Buddhism, Nietzsche, and existential issues more generally has left me feeling like I am doing all of this philosophical work, i.e., reading, thinking, and writing, on how best to live this human life, and yet, in doing so I seem to be thinking more about living than actually living. So, again, what’s the point? ….Or so it can feel sometimes, acutely.
And, of course, the chronic pain and limitations on my activities forces a confrontation with that other kind of nihilism that Nietzsche so wonderfully emphasizes, namely, the nihilism engendered by the failure of being able to answer well the question: Why do I suffer? What is its point? However, this is not the kind of nihilism that has weighed most heavily on me. In part, I think this is because of my earlier “loss of faith” in any kind of purposefulness to the universe. I don’t expect there to be some why of it; it just is. While there have been moments, hours, days, where I have felt weary of pain and limitation, and in those moments I have thought of death welcomingly, I have not generally felt the call of suicidal nihilism, that kind of nihilism that Nietzsche thinks will come about when one cannot answer the why of one’s suffering.
Aside from the feeling of purposelessness that has been growing over the last several years, the main form of nihilism that has threatened my life has been that which seems to follow from death’s being the extinction of the self. When I came across the following passage almost twenty years ago, I felt a “kindred affection”:
Simone de Beauvoir…, growing old, finished the third volume of her memoirs, Force of Circumstance, with a review of the life she had so passionately affirmed: “Yet I loathe the thought of annihilating myself quite as much now as I ever did. I think with sadness of all the books I’ve read, all the places I’ve seen, all the knowledge I’ve amassed and that will be no more. All the music, all the paintings, all the culture, so many places: and suddenly nothing…. If it had at least enriched the earth; if it had given birth to…what? A hill? A rocket? But no. Nothing will have taken place, I can still see the hedge of hazel trees flurried by the wind and the promises with which I fed my beating heart while I stood gazing at the gold-mine at my feet: a whole life to live. The promises have all been kept. And yet, turning an incredulous gaze towards that young and credulous girl, I realize with stupor how much I was gypped.”
For me, what did the “gypping” was the intuition that the only thing keeping the past meaningful was my continued conscious appreciation of its value—hence my strong tendency towards nostalgia and sentimentality. Death as the cessation of my consciousness and memories entailed that my life, all that I had said, done, and experienced, all the private and public moments, all the love, the friendships, the tenderness of my mother to child me, etc., were to be rendered meaningless.
I no longer feel the force of this latter nihilism so acutely, particularly given work I’ve done on hindsight judgments. Nevertheless, it is not an easy intuition to be free from. But whether it threatens nihilism or not, suffering and death continue to cry out for a response: how to live in the face of them? Before my own chronic pain began in 2011, I confronted that of my first wife who suffered greatly from both chronic physical and mental illness. At its worst, I was her caregiver and she was bedridden. And then a year after our divorce she committed suicide in February of 2010.
Where Nietzsche found it useful to conceptualize life in terms of the Dionysian and the Apollonian, I have found it helpful, even necessary, to conceptualize it in terms of the Nietzschean and Buddhist. For a long time I have held captive by two pictures. That of the calm, dignified, but joyful Zen monk, perhaps someone even like a Ryōkan, that homeless, wandering Zen poet of 19th century, pre-Meiji Era Japan, who wrote:
Void of fleshly desire, I find satisfaction in all things.
Nothing is big enough to cure man’s desire, once awakened.
Wild vegetables are quite sufficient to gratify my hunger.
The gown I have on my flesh keeps me wrapped against cold.
I range all by myself, stags and harts keeping me company.
I sing loudly to myself, children answering me in harmony.
And the other picture is that of the impassioned Nietzschean higher type, the creative genius, someone like Goethe or Beethoven, or Nietzsche himself. And I find myself longing to embody both pictures in this life but have the clarity of mind enough to know that I embody neither. But more importantly, these two pictures seem to me, and so my impression is that they seem to others, to be incompatible or contradictory. I have wondered though, after a number of years, whether they really are incompatible: could a Goethe or a Beethoven have been a dedicated Zen practitioner (the form of Buddhism I am most familiar with)? Could one be the impassioned critic of what is lower and conducive to weakness and mediocrity and still be the Buddhist who lets go of resisting what is, whatever it may be?
Further, initially at least, Buddhism and Nietzsche are at odds in their valuation of suffering: Buddhism seems to call for its cessation, whereas Nietzsche says:
You want, if possible—and there is no more insane “if possible”—to abolish suffering. And we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever. Well-being as you understand it—that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible—that makes his destruction desirable.
The discipline of suffering, of great suffering—do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far?
Buddhism seeks to transform one’s suffering; Nietzsche seems to say that, at least for the higher types, suffering should be sought and extolled! This difference is further seen in Nietzsche’s critique of the notion of compassion/pity/Mitleid that he sees at the heart of Buddhism and Christianity. The latter’s understanding of compassion calls for ending others’ suffering as quickly as possible. Nietzsche’s compassion would have the suffering increased! Which way should I go in regard to my own suffering? In answering this question, I must answer the question of whether Buddhism and Nietzsche Dionysian philosophy really are at odds, though they seem to be on the surface, at least.
Another aspect of the tension I feel between Buddhism and Nietzsche concerns meaning and purpose. In the context of the will to power and the idea of the higher type being a creative genius who contributes to high culture, it is through the passionate pursuit of one’s self-imposed ends that one expresses one’s power. In such a context one’s life is imbued with meaning in the form of an active purpose passionately pursued. “Why do I wake and enter the world every morning? Because I must do this! I want nothing else!” While on the other hand, Hee-Jin Kim gives us a picture of the purposeless, the meaningless life in his reading of Dōgen’s Zen:
…zazen for Dōgen was ultimately the expression of an eternal quest for the meaning of existence, which was, paradoxically enough, meaningless—it was living the meaning of ultimate meaninglessness. This is Zen.
While Nietzsche certainly rejects the idea of some transcendent god-like thing/being that gives the world absolute and objective meaning, his views on creativity and suffering are strong expressions of a meaningful, i.e., purposeful, life. Is this really at odds with the meaninglessness that Kim describes in Dōgen’s Zen? It seems like it, but I don’t know.
At the heart of my life, then, is this felt and lived tension between these seemingly different approaches toward life, death, suffering, and meaning. It is this tension and its implications for my life and its question of meaning that motivate this book. As un-ironically as I can, I realize that my writing this book is an attempt to give my life the sense of purpose that it seems to lack. One possible result will be my realizing, along the lines of Zen, that the felt need for purpose and meaning is due to ignorance—no purpose or meaning is necessary (or possible). Even if that is the result that I come to, that will not mean, of course, that I no longer feel the psychological pressure to find meaning. Because of prior experiences and conditioning, some things are not live options.
 Nietzsche 1967, 257, fn. 2.
 Hamilton 2016, 11-12.
 Hans Küng, Does God Exist?, 693.
 Quoted in Carney 2013, 79.
 Beyond Good and Evil, 225.
 Kim 2004, 63.