For most of my childhood and adolescence, I quietly avoided thoughts of my own mortality. Every once in a while, the futility of life would hit me with such dizzying horror that I sometimes threw up just from the fear. Luckily, though, this was rare, and I was good at shoving those thoughts to the periphery of my mind until they melted into the otherwise happy, curious fabric of my interior life.
During November of my senior year of high school, thoughts of my own demise resurfaced. One panic attack followed another, and instead of fading, the thoughts became amplified. Walking, driving, showering, attending class, the impending doom drummed on. Nothing would last. Nothing mattered. Nothing was even real, objectively speaking. All this work and love and suffering and happiness for nothing. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
I didn’t know what prompted my descent into existential anxiety, and I didn’t know how to stop it. I never watch television — I haven’t watched a single episode of a show since arriving at Stanford — but I watched six seasons of “The Office” in two months just because I needed a comical distraction to make it through the day. I couldn’t sit still with my own mind for fear of falling into a self-made black hole. It got so bad that I started calming myself with the assurance that I could, if worse came to worst, end my time on the planet prematurely. Ironic, since my fear of death was the cause of my distress in the first place.
Months went by. I watched more TV and confronted my anxiety on Quora and Reddit threads like “How do I stop thinking about death?” and “What is the point of living if it all ends?”
As you can imagine, some answers were more helpful than others. I never found the philosophical panacea I was seeking — alas, God has not yet weighed in on Reddit — but I noticed a common theme. Many commenters suggested that the fear of death is really a fear of meaninglessness in disguise. We do not fear the end, but we fear arriving at the end with nothing to show for it. These commenters suggested pursuing love, family, a meaningful career or simply an appreciation of aesthetics as a remedy for the existential anxiety I was experiencing.
At first, I was skeptical. Nihilism, after all, would laugh at such a sentimental cure: Do what you will, but it still doesn’t matter on the cosmic scale! You’re still just a momentary speck in space!
I couldn’t argue with nihilism, but I gradually learned it wasn’t an argument worth having. Of course, life is objectively meaningless; unless you believe in a divine creator, there is no organizing principle to the universe. Death is death, and even if there is reincarnation, the sun will explode someday and the universe will collapse after that and no life will endure.
Convincing, but there’s a paradox in this line of logic: Believing in nihilism and indulging thoughts of death and infinity and meaninglessness scares me. But in order to be scared, I must not really believe in nihilism or meaninglessness. If I truly were a nihilist, then nothing could scare me. Life and death would be neutral, and therefore I’d have nothing to worry about.
Evidently, something mattered to me: my life. And why did my life matter to me? I thought about this question for a long time and to some extent still do. My brush with nihilistic despair erased all assumptions of meaning from my life, leaving me to decide which things I truly value and which things I only took as important because of external expectations. Looking back on my 18 years, I decided that love was more important than knowledge, but knowledge was more important than social status. I stopped caring so much about grades and started focusing more on my oft-neglected relationship with my siblings. I reconsidered all my career aspirations and whether they would bring me true joy and engagement or just an extra dose of ego.
You don’t have to go through a nihilistic downward spiral to clarify your values, of course. Nihilism forces a transformation, but you can choose to interrogate your own value system without months of depression. I do recommend, however, that you begin with the idea that nothing objectively matters. Recognize that all your accomplishments and accolades are transient and will someday be forgotten. That doesn’t mean accomplishment is completely futile; it just means that you don’t have to focus on achievement for life’s meaning if you don’t find it intrinsically valuable. You choose what matters while you’re here. There’s no wrong choice; life’s meaning is a question without an answer.
And if you’re in the throes of nihilistic thinking, remember: You’re upset because you care. And as long as you care about fear, you have the capacity to care about other things, too. Give it time, watch a full TV show if you have to, and you’ll find that life is meaningful, after all — just, perhaps, not in the ways you expect it to be.
Contact Avery Rogers at averyr ‘at’ stanford.edu