Nothing matters

Andō, Hiroshige. Kisoji No Sansen. Japan, 1857.

We are constantly told what matters in life. From our earliest days we are sponges that soak up beliefs and ways of seeing the world. This method helps us survive in a social world where outsiders and those who go against the norm have a hard time of it. We survive as young folk by mirroring the attitudes of those around us. 

There is an element of chance, then, as to what views we form and hold. The genetic lottery spits us out to one set of parents, in one country, in one culture at one specific time. And yet this blind luck gives us the ingredients we use to form the very core of who we are. Our beliefs are not a product of nature so much as they are of nurture, and recognising this is the first step to appreciating just how subjective that which we think as being important ultimately is. 

Even if one is blessed by the roll of genetic dice and, say, born to a family of rational philosopher-poets as opposed to cricket fans who fart in elevators, one still must contend with layers of beliefs imposed by society in both implicit and explicit ways. State schooling, media, and legal systems all tell us how to think and what to value. This didactic use of state power is unavoidable, so it becomes yet another lottery as to whether or not one lives in the embrace of a state that uses its power to promote human rights and gender equality versus a state that uses its authority to promote unquestioning obedience and belief in the state while suppressing minority rights.   

Most people, then, arrive at adulthood with much of their thinking done for them: a pre-made set of beliefs inherited by memetic transmission. Common in these pre-made sets of beliefs are things like a love for family, faith in the value of hard work, and some level of honesty and decency. This is, of course, culturally relative: Different societies will instil different levels of respect for things like gender equality, religion, and human rights. 

We rarely question the value-systems we inherit. It is easy—easier, in fact—to live the unexamined life and never critically engage with the core ideas that make you, you. And yet I need to be clear: I am not suggesting one’s belief systems are fixed or somehow immutable. Only that for many people the changes are occurring on some deep, unobserved level. We are rarely encouraged to question and examine our beliefs and why we believe some things and not others. Indeed, there is an element of social cohesion that is predicated on people not examining these things too deeply. The average of these belief systems becomes a nation’s identity. 

The cost of this lack of introspection, of identity on auto pilot, is that we seldom happen upon a fundamentally crucial realisation: that nothing matters. There is no objective truth behind any of the things we believe in, be they sacred or profane. In other words, the things we are taught as being of vital importance, are just opinions dressed up to a special, and seen through this lens, ridiculous degree. The universe does not care whether or not we think it is important to do well in our jobs or always let those of one gender in doors first or any of the things one might believe. These things are all just constructs, ossified over time, into something seemingly more important. There is a reason why we refer to our beliefs and not our facts.  

At the risk of further rocking the boat, allow me to point out a further fundamental truth: We do not matter. Our lives are insignificant and fleeting. I mean that on both a species level and an individual level. There is no purpose to our lives, any more than there is some grand purpose to a wave crashing against the shore. We simply are alive for a little bit of time and then we are not, our lives dictated by biological and physical reality. 

One can take this as being bleak and depressing. If nothing matters, then what is the point, one might say. Any bleakness behind the idea is superficial and falls away pretty quickly. Instead, the realisation that nothing matters is the single most freeing realisation one can have. By rejecting the beliefs of others, especially those we have absorbed unconsciously and osmotically, we are led into a continuous and ever-evolving dialogue about what matters to us. This involves reflection and critical evaluation. It involves rejecting things we used to hold true and dear, but have now outgrown. When I was first exploring this concept, I was rather taken with the way a Kurzgesagt video labelled the concept: optimistic nihilism

When you start viewing life through this lens you quickly realise how much of that which is central to your sense of self has been largely unconscious and left to others to influence and decide for you. And of course the irony of this is that they who have influenced you were themselves influenced by the unconscious beliefs of others and so the chain stretches on ad infinitum. 

It is only because the notion that nothing matters is so radical, at least on its surface, that it effectively acts as a circuit breaker to jolt us awake. Once awake we can then begin to interrogate what matters to us and discover both what sort of person we are and what sort of person we want to be. 

I am not suggesting that the realisation of nothing mattering will completely transform who we are. It is entirely possible, if not unlikely and perhaps indicative of some resistance to the idea, that one will emerge from this self dialogue with roughly the same set of views and beliefs. What is more likely, though, is that one might cast off some views, like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, while leaning stronger into some other views. The point is the process; the destination doesn’t matter, and in many ways there is no destination. Our choices about what matters should never be fixed or unchanging because the world itself is not fixed or unchanging. We can never step in the same river twice, after all. 

Accepting that nothing matters is the path to personal growth and a sort of relaxed freedom about how one sees and engages with the world. It helps one build healthier relationships and likewise avoid unhealthy ones: work places, for instance, will often exploit our desire to do well and to please. However if we are aware of our values then it becomes harder for those values to be used against us. Or, heck, maybe you’ll decide that working hard and climbing the ladder is your most important value. The point is to know what truly matters to you. 

If you’re still struggling with the concept, I’d argue it’s not even as radical as it may first seem. If we accept that our views will change throughout life, then already we’re accepting that there is some subjectivity at play here. And so it is a natural step to then realise that nothing matters and therefore we are free to believe in that which is important to us. We can choose to instead believe in that which sparks joy to us. 

And if you’re still on the fence, I encourage you to engage with the idea as a thought experiment, to be curious and open to where reflection may lead. What would it mean for you if nothing truly mattered and you had the freedom to pick what you believed in? How might your view of the world change? How might the decisions you make change? 

I have to warn you, though, that is a thrilling and empowering way of thinking, and once you start on the path it can be quite difficult to turn back.  

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