I encountered an existential predicament at a rather early age, when I was encouraged by my mother to enter an art contest at my elementary school. The theme of the contest was “Questions,” which was no doubt meant to inspire kids to hastily scrawl “Why can’t we all just get along?” in crayon around the earth with stick figures holding hands and smiling. I sat down at the kitchen table with my washable Crayola markers, ready to impress my parents and teachers with my juvenile and simplistic depiction of society’s systemic issues, but couldn’t help but stare blankly at the white page that was staring back at me. After 10 minutes and no ideas, I began to get frustrated. Why was I even doing this art contest? I was never good at drawing. Why was there an art contest at all? What would that change about my life? Either way, I was going to go upstairs and play with my Legos. I didn’t have to do anything. I put a big question mark in the center of the page and above it wrote “Why am I here?” and went upstairs to play.
I returned downstairs for my snack of peanut butter on toast to find my mother staring at my minimal artwork. With a look of equal parts surprise and awe, she asked me what inspired my work, to which I responded with “I don’t know.” At the time, I really didn’t know what had prompted me to question my existence, or why my mom looked at me the way she did.
I began to understand a little more as I grew older. I encountered that question much more frequently, and it almost always accompanies times of stress, uncertainty and angst. A paper is due at midnight? Why does it matter? Grades? What will those do for me, really? Which brought me to the disparaging conclusion that it doesn’t matter.
When I realized this, everything felt different. The people around me were seemingly ignorant of this ultimate truth. How was everyone casually going about their days when none of it matters? Surely they were missing something. And thus my train of thought ended with a feeling of desperation, isolation and skepticism. This feeling would come in waves, spiraling out of control until I decided that even considering my own futility was moot and I would move on. Often I would simply remedy the feeling with Modest Mouse or my copy of “Watchmen” or whatever I felt like accurately depicted the world for what it really was. I was content, even fascinated, with this continuous loop of meaninglessness. I began to convince myself that my cynical view of the world was correct and that everyone else was missing something.
High school was the perfect incubator for this thought process, with an endless onslaught of busywork and the monotony of a daily routine. I came to understand how typical my experience was and that most teenagers were thinking quietly about the same things, believing that they were the only ones who understood the grade facade of life. By the time I was in sophomore year and my English class was discussing “The Catcher in the Rye” (the quintessential rebellious teen novel), it was abundantly clear that everyone else had at least considered the thought that existence is essentially meaningless. This realization was initially comforting, as I wasn’t the only one to see the world though such a cynical lens. I wasn’t alone anymore. It was my generation of Holden Caulfields against the ignorance of the world. Which made sense until I considered the fact that “The Catcher in the Rye” was written in the early ‘50s — a decade before my parents were even born — and that they may have even read the book in school after wondering if life is meaningless. But my parents are involved and passionate about the things they do and even extend their enthusiasm to my activities and interests. Why was it that their nihilism had failed to endure? Where was the cynicism I saw in myself?
As I began to transcend the spiral of nothingness that nihilism presented me, I felt myself moving toward maturity. From a technical standpoint, and for all intents and purposes, life is fundamentally meaningless. We are not born with a set objective to fulfill, and frankly the universe cares little about the 80 years (on average) that each of us is here for. Yet, in spite of all that, we have the power to bestow meaning to life. That there is no clear purpose to living means that we can choose to pursue anything and not be wrong. Whether it’s meaningful or not, life goes on, and choosing to believe that life is meaningless is denying all the beauty and joy that it has to offer. How could I refute the pleasure I get from a warm blanket or fresh popcorn or hearing the “swish” sound of a basketball? Suddenly the pieces began to fit together. The older generation wasn’t blind to the fact that life may be meaningless, but rather had surpassed the notion with the realization that life is a wonderful thing in spite of, and maybe even because of, its futility. Maturity is recognizing this concept and having the wisdom to rise above the spiraling vortex of nihilism. Humans have the remarkable ability to give life meaning, and we should! Life is too short to not live it with value, whatever that may be. In the words of Captain Ahab, “If money’s to be the measurer, man, … my vengeance will fetch a great premium here!” as he gestures to his heart. Seek the value in life, and you will become very wealthy.
“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion columnist have been selected.