Nihilism Reaches the Suburbs

This blog contains something of my personal story. If you want to skip the “personal story segment” and shorten your reading,  jump down to (What is Nihilism?)

What a Year! Those of us who are a little on the older side lived through and remember the dramatic culture changing year of 1968. What an awful year in so many ways. The Vietnam War was at it height and wasn’t going well from the Tet Offensive to anti-war protests here at home. The Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King  was earth shaking. Terrible riots followed that dreadful event making matters even worse. Those riots completely reshaped many cities. Robert Kennedy was assassinated later that year. Demonstrations and riots also accompanied the Democratic Convention in 1968. And all through it a steady beat of the sexual revolution eroded modesty and illicit drug use became very public. Disrespect, even hatred of authority in any form was epidemic and reverence for any form of tradition cast aside. Hippies, love-ins, crash pads and a general haze of pot and hash hung in the air of College campuses and places like Haight Ashbury in San Francisco. Slogans like Free love! If it feels good do it! Make love not war! etc. were common. Many College campuses ceased to function under the weight of almost constant student protests. The cultural revolution had reached critical mass.

Yet not all of us in 1968 were radicalized yet. I had a flat top crew cut and was just a young kid. We decorated our bikes with streamers for the 4thof July and attended parades. My patriotic father was heading off to the war, and like any typical boy I was accustomed to building forts, playing German spotlight and king of the mountain. Our little neighborhood in north suburban Chicago seemed worlds away from Haight Ashbury, or even Grant Park in Chicago where Chicago Hippies smoked pot and did LSD. I remember once driving past Grant Park on the way to a downtown museum and asking my mother with shock, “Mom! Why do those men have hair like girls!?”  These strange sights were scary and made no sense. In April of that year Dr. King had been assassinated and though news was less 24/7 than today I remember being terrified to see whole sections of the South  and West Side of Chicago on fire in the news. My mother only told me when I was older that she had barely escaped with her life. She had been substitute teaching on the South Side that fateful April Day when the riots closed in. An angel in a police uniform escorted her out.  It was 1968. The Cultural Revolution had reached critical mass. The nuclear fission bomb of cultural revolution had exploded. But the fallout had not reached the suburbs yet.

Fast Forward just ten years. It is 1978 and I am a Junior in High School.  By now the radiation of the late 1960s had spread a kind of radiation sickness to areas not initially devastated. By now I had long hair, down to my shoulders. I was a little too shy to be far advanced in the sexual revolution and anger and a kind of hatred and  ridicule of authority was my thing. Pop music was OK but heavy Rock Music was my real thing. It fed my anger and made me feel righteous in my disrespect of parents and others in authority. Rock music confirmed and validated my anger and also the dogma that old people didn’t know anything worth learning. I was somewhat at odds with my father and though I could not withstand him, I avoided him and nursed great hostility for him in my heart. And Rock music supplied me all the material I needed. Nihilism had now reached the suburbs and I was one revel in its hostility. Who were you to say what was right or wrong!? What do a bunch of old gray haired men in the Vatican know that is worth anything. Yes Nihilism had reached the suburbs!

What is Nihilism? – Nihilism is fundamentally a philosophical doctrine that exults in the negation of one of more traditionally meaningful aspects of  life. It comes from the Latin “nihil” which means “nothing.” Culturally nihilism exalts in tearing down traditional forms and understanding. In its most radical form, Nihilism argues that life itself is without any intrinsic meaning or purpose. Moral Nihilism argues that there are no moral norms or criteria that are universally valid and that morality itself is just a contrivance;  that good and evil are just human constructs. Intellectual Nihilists deny that anything can really be known. Metaphysical  Nihilists deny that anything is actually real!  But in the end what Nihilism enjoys most is reducing to nothing that which was something. It hates the past, denies that previous generations have anything to teach us. It accepts almost no limits and denies that anything is really true. Everything must go and be replaced by… nothing. Yes it is absurd but it is really more about anger and rebellion than anything reasonable. How could it be reasonable since reasonableness presupposes standards and norms? Nihilism is hostile to the notion that anything can really be known or stated with certainty and is fundamentally deconstructionist because it loves to tear down the moral,  social and cultural fabric that took centuries to develop.  In the end, Nihilism exults in nothingness.

But sadly most people today suffer from some form of Nihilism. Most people deny the fact of objective moral norms. Even more deny the notion of absolute moral norms. Most people today no longer consider things to be true or false. Rather, most everything is seen just as opinion or a subjective point of view. It may be true that many things are just opinion but does this mean that there is really no objective truth to be found? It would seem so, according to many if not most people today. All of this of course leads to a rather deep cynicism as well as an incapacity to come to agreement on many important issues of the day. Since no agreed upon norms exist, life amounts to a power struggle between factions. Nihilism has so permeated our culture that most people don’t even know its there. It’s like talking to a fish about water and the fish says, “What water?” Most people congratulate themselves for their Nihilism by calling it other things like “open-mindedness”, “tolerance”, “acceptance”, “progressiveness” and the like. There are real virtues by these names but it is likely that most who claim these virtues for themselves are actually just suffering from some form of Nihilism. Yes, I want to argue that nihilism has reached the suburbs, the kitchen table, the family hearth.

And more than ever this is why we need Catholic culture and faith. It is only with something that we can battle nothing. I have come a long way out of my Nihilism that reached full flower in the late 1970s. I had turned my sights away from God and the Church and found only  “nothing.”  I cannot say I have fully emerged from Nihilism for it has  so permeated everything. And yet I credit the Catholic faith for restoring to me to truth and its existence. I credit the faith for restoring my hope and healing so much of my anger and cynicism. I thank the Catholic Faith for restoring to me my sight. Truth inevitably leads to beauty and goodness,  and what a beautiful view it is. There is great serenity and freedom in the truth. I know that Nihilism brought me only anger and struggle against perceived enemies (i.e. my father, the Church et al.) that was far from serene.   So here I stand more blessed than I deserve, coming out of nothing into everything, out of darkness into light. The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light; but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be. (Matt 6:23-24)

This video presents what had been my “theme song” in High School. One of my favorite rock groups was The Who and they published a song in 1978 that resonated very deeply with my Nihilism at that time. I am embarrassed that I ever thought this a theme song. But it surely does capture Nihilism well. Notice how the moral Nihilism gives way to anger, then cynicism, then despair and ultimately a kind of death wish. The song ends by saying in a rather exalted tone: “Here comes the end of the world!”  Nihilism alright, in the end: nothing!

Here are the words to the song you can hear on the video:

I’ve had enough of bein’ nice; I’ve had enough of right and wrong I’ve had enough of tryin’ to love my brother.

I’ve had enough of bein’ good; And doin’ everything like i’m told I should; If you need a lover, you’d better find another

Life is for the living;  Takers never giving

Suspicion takes the place of trust; My love is turning into lust; If you get on the wrong side of me you better run for cover

I’ve had enough of bein’ trodden on; My passive days are gonna be long gone; If you slap one cheek, well, I ain’t gonna turn the other

Life is for the living; Takers never giving. Fooling no one but ourselves;  good is dying; Here comes the end
Here comes the end of the world

I’m gettin’ sick of this universe; Ain’t gonna get better; it’s gonna get worse; And the world’s gonna sink with the weight of the human race

Hate and fear in every face; I’m gettin’ ready and I’ve packed my case; If you find somewhere better, can you save my place?

Fooling no one but ourselves; Love is dying; Here comes the end; Here comes the end
Here comes the end of the world