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Meaning is Malleable

Finding the meaning(lessness) of life at age 30

by

CALEB WALSH ILLUSTRATION
  • Caleb Walsh illustration

By the time I told a stranger at a wedding reception that I was a nihilist, someone had already slipped Ecstasy into my red Solo cup. I didn't find out I was drugged until months later when a friend said it was given covertly to everyone. So on the other side of the world, at a wedding in Australia, I found myself face-to-face with an overly joyous blond man with dimples like a cherub.

I didn't know how difficult it would be to explain the meaningless of life to him as he, the best man at the wedding, tried to fit all of his fingers into my mouth. He was on Ecstasy, too. With most people, the drug enhances senses and inhibits the reluctance to touch, be touched and express emotional peace or empathy, which is probably why I admitted — for the first time out loud — that I believed in nothing.

The contradiction between my chemical-induced euphoria and my overwhelming disbelief in reality, thereby fueling my despair, was not proper wedding talk for me, the maid of honor, a woman with unruly hair that day adorned with white roses. But it's a subject I've come to embrace as I embark on the first year of my 30s.

In my 30 years I've seen the stock market crash, genocide, crippling natural disasters, and lived in a nation and world constantly at war, with terror, both domestic and abroad, so pervasive that attempts at joy — to go to a movie, club or concert — are fraught with mass shootings and bombings. Even moral acts seem fruitless when we continue to kill each other in the name of morality, and continue to be divided by politics and parties that have no one's best interests at heart.

I don't care that by comparison other generations had it worse, or that statements like this are the exact reason everyone hates millennials. I don't care anymore about searching for the meaning of life.

Resonating with an age-old philosophy made popular by Friedrich Nietzsche makes me sound like a hipster, but it's the only thing that seems to make sense.

Nihilists are thought to exert their beliefs, or lack thereof, in one of two ways — through hedonism or resentment — with the sole impulse to destroy. Despite the occasional accidental Ecstasy experience, I'm far too cautious to be a hedonist, too deeply unhappy and crippled by vulnerability to actually feel good. And the only thing I've ever set out to butcher and extinguish was myself.

While I'm empathetic, I've never gotten good at understanding how people cope with the world. Those who know me well see that I occasionally express great joy, but mostly great sorrow. To say that nihilism was always coming is an understatement.

At 19, I tried to kill myself with a steak knife. In my early 20s, I used sex as an entrapment for love. My mid-20s were dedicated to the bottle and my depression, and for a while I simply wallowed in self-loathing and pizza.

In this time, my belief that people are intrinsically selfish and bad was only amplified, but I clung to the hope that if I was good, if I was kind and without ego, an answer would be revealed at the end of the tunnel. And I don't mean a light, because I am not so foolish as to believe in God.

If my 20s taught me anything, it's to trust the darkness in the tunnel and cultivate an ego. It's that the apocalyptic terror of our culture is dedicated to its destruction. It's that no love is great enough to save us.

As the best man pulled his sticky fingers out of my mouth, he asked how I could believe in nothing. I tried to explain that our actions, our distinction between what is right and what is wrong — our very claim to a singular reality — was pointless.

But the music was too loud, the drug was too strong and we were too unaware of its psychoactive effects to truly persuade the other — him a joyous cherub and me an unruly void. We spent the rest of the wedding reception holed up at the bar listening to Slayer, trying to mold each other's lips and cheeks and faces in our hands like Play-Doh.

In that moment, and in all the ones that have passed since I've turned 30, I've found peace in the absurdity and meaningless of life. I'm focused less on my inability to cope, or pretend to fit into it anymore. I'm less resentful because I'm not focused on the payout — I'm not waiting for an answer that doesn't exist. ♦