Kurt Vonnegut was the first writer to make me really feel nihilism where I lived. Cat’s Cradle is an early novel of his most famous for the form of its world’s destroyer — ice-nine, a form of water that freezes at room temperature. But what makes it linger in my mind after reading it 20 years ago is how much of a sucker-punch the ending is. It made me think that Vonnegut must not have a very high opinion of humanity, which he denounced as idiotic, hypocritical, and careless. At the same time, it was clear that he loved people — even the absurd ways we brought suffering upon ourselves.
I’ve always felt a personal connection to Vonnegut because he feels to me like an idealist who had his optimism burned out of him by some singularly traumatic event. Idealists don’t break easy, but when they do it’s a pretty complete snap. Yet here was someone who had kept his sharp eye and fondness for people — while also clearly seeing through the bullshit everyone feeds themselves. I’m not saying I have any of Vonnegut’s brilliance, but I could see myself getting to that state when I was younger. Deeply cynical of people, but in love with the ideals we still hold dear.
In the wake of 2016, it felt like a large hole inside my psyche had been scooped out and discarded. Even now, there’s a big empty spot where my sense of…justice? Hope? Optimism? Joy?…used to be. It doesn’t mean that I can’t feel joy, or that I’m not happy and content. I can, and I am. But the idea that one day humanity lives up to its potential and embodies its best virtues is gone. I just don’t see us living in a Star Trek utopia. I think half of us would riot if it was offered to us tomorrow on a golden platter. We will never reward the hard but principled action, as a species. We will always create a society that rewards those who ensure scarcity exists.
Whatever our future holds, it isn’t this form of civilization. Things might worse before they get better; we might revert to feudalism, or outright slavery, maybe something far worse. Whatever comes after this will likely bury our way of life under a thousand years of darkness so that, when some far-flung society is ready to try building something that lasts longer than anything in nature, it will have to do so from scratch.
So what do I do with the remaining 40 or 50 years I’ve got? Going for a legacy is a completely foolish errand, but I also can’t just focus on whatever feels best right now. I still want to make sense of our lives, figure out how we might live better with ourselves and each other, to do something that replaces this persistent, hollow feeling. And that’s the dilemma. How do I do something that matters when, in fact, nothing at all matters?
It’s hard to face down the fact of your annihilation. I mean, you always get that you’re going to die and everything you do will eventually be forgotten, but now it feels like the ending of a Vonnegut novel. See the cat? See the cradle? It feels like I’ve been surfing the eternal void all this time and because the board’s been under my feet I’ve managed to trick myself that I’m on solid ground. But I’ve lost my board, and the nothing that’s been under my feet the whole time is all that I can see. How can I get my bearings? Do bearings even exist?
Of course they don’t, and it’s silly to think they do. It’s tragic that we’re creatures who seemingly need them in order to function, because it makes us ill-prepared to deal with objective reality.
This feels like a primer to dive deep into Zen again. That enso is mostly void, just a frame to hold a small portion of meaninglessness so that we can handle it.