FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
March 6, 2000
Nihilism has a curious variety of faces. Generally we think of it as some gloomy, philosophical ideology within which God does not exist, nothing means anything and suicide is explored as a positive option.
Thus, we think of people like Friedrich Nietzsche (God is dead!), Albert Camus (Everything is indifferent!), Art Schopenhauer (What are the pros and cons of suicide?), and our present-day deconstructionists who have shredded all the old agreed-upon canons of excellence and standards of heroism. This is nihilism's sullen, abstract face, inviting us to a joylessness which it defines as maturity.
But nihilism also has another face, a rather pleasant one. This variety might be called "the nihilism of Seinfeld," after Jerry Seinfeld, the American comedian who has made himself a household word and millions of dollars by, as he puts it, "being about nothing!"
His celebrated sitcom and his stand-up routines are so popular precisely because of his exceptional ability to trivialize everything in a way that makes it light, funny and disconnected from all the soul-scarring pain that betrayal, wounded sexuality and death bring into the world.
In this kind of nihilism, nothing means anything because everything is a joke. Nothing is heavy and sullen because nothing carries enough meaning to make it heavy and sullen. Life is a laugh: so smile, cut your losses and move on with some style. There will be more laughs in the future.
This has become the literary genre for the television sitcom, the talk show and the stand-up comic today. Seinfeld simply does it better than most others. However whether it's Jay Leno's monologues, David Letterman's top-ten lists, or Monty Python's the meaning of life, the bottom-line is the same, nothing means anything . . . and isn't that a pleasant thought! In the end all will be well, and all will be funny, and every manner of being will prove itself to be a huge joke! Post-modern nihilism, in a nutshell.
Not all of this is bad, mind you. Wit, humour and a pleasant face shouldn't too quickly be dismissed. I learned this from my own mother. As a young, over-intense seminarian, at home during a break in my studies, I was rather shocked to see my own mother, a very pious woman, watching Laugh-In (an irreverent television series popular in the late 1960s).
To my young mind, this was a highly amoral program. I expressed my anxiety: "Mum, you're watching this!" Her answer: "It makes me laugh when I'm feeling down!" She was sensitive enough not to point out that her over-pompous, uptight, dour, seminarian son did not always have that same uplifting effect on her. My mother knew the value of the court jester.
But, the value of laughter and the brilliance of the Jerry Seinfelds of this world notwithstanding, nihilism is still nihilism and, pleasant face or not, it has a subtle, pernicious underside. In the end, it helps kill hope. As Seinfeld himself puts it: "I'm about nothing!"
Tragically too, but in real life, so generally are the rest of us. That is the point: Too often we are about nothing. Everything is a joke and so we are a people without big dreams, without the capacity to really build anything, without a real sustaining vision and without the capacity to sacrifice present comfort for anything beyond the immediate sweetening of life. Such is the effect when everything is trivialized.
That is the antithesis of hope. Hope, as a virtue, should never be confused with simple optimism ("The bottle is never half empty!"), an upbeat atmosphere (Disneyland), or with the capacity to laugh when things are bad ("Send in the clowns!"). Neither is it a gritty stoicism ("I'll not feel sorry for myself, even though everything is meaningless!") or wishful thinking ("Believe in it long enough and it will happen!"). What is it?
To hope is to be nurtured and sustained by a great belief, by a great ideal that is based upon a promise made by a power beyond our own – God. To hope is to live in the belief that, appearances notwithstanding, ultimately God will give us a world within which the lion and lamb will lie down together, where love and peace will triumph, and wherein all tears will be valued and wiped away.
To hope is to let such a great ideal empower us so as to sacrifice private ego, private comfort, private embrace, and even life itself, if necessary, for some great future, communal embrace. Post-modern nihilism is helping kill such hope.
Humour is a wonderful thing. My mother drank its medicine, even when it sometimes made light of what she held dear. Unfortunately today we often aren't as discriminating. We like what makes us laugh, but aren't always careful enough with what we hold dear. The danger is that we end up like Nietzsche, except with a much more pleasant face.