“If life — the craving for which is the very essence of our being — were possessed of any positive intrinsic value, there would be no such thing as boredom at all: mere existence would satisfy us in itself, and we should want for nothing.” – Arthur Schopenhauer
The COVID-19 pandemic has proven itself to be one of the most significant events in contemporary human history. Death, pain and suffering are among the chronic symptoms of all public health crises, and with them come individual feelings of desiderium and hopelessness. Nihilism, unfortunately, exists all around us, and the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a unique form of suffering, one which humanity has never faced.
In its purest form, nihilism is the belief that life is meaningless, void of any intrinsic value. Philosophers throughout time have embarked on the daunting endeavor of attempting to solve this issue, or at the very least offer some reassurance for those agonized by feelings of meaninglessness. With nihilism comes many iterations, such as sociocultural nihilism experienced by women amidst historical feminists movements, or financial nihilism experienced by those confronting economic hardships. In any sense, we can agree that feelings of hopelessness and meaninglessness may be triggered by almost anything, even things as minute as a poor test grade. This brings us to pandemic nihilism.
The challenges faced during pandemics are more or less universalistic, although typically disproportionate. Those in lower-income communities and developing nations often experience greater losses than those of more affluent areas, but the general notion that all are suffering in some capacity due to the ongoing pandemic remains true. Additionally, those alive in different pandemics also experience unique forms of suffering. Due to exponential disparities in technological advancements, the circumstances of, say, the bubonic plague or the Spanish flu, are drastically different from one another. Furthermore, they’re infinitely separate from the living conditions we encounter today. This means that within pandemic nihilism exists unique forms of suffering from pandemic to pandemic – plague-nihilism, Spanish flu-nihilism, and COVID-19-nihilism – the last of which I will refer to at C-nihilism.
Due to advances in technology and medical care, C-nihilism is aided by an additional irony, in that we possess all of the resources needed to cure such a disease, and yet we find ourselves suffering just as we did during the Spanish flu or the bubonic plague. News of outbreaks, variants, failed experiments and other shortcomings plague all three of these historical events. Regardless of how ill or well-equipped we are, C-nihilism is especially vicious, likely due to our expectations of success being let down.
So how do we approach these feelings of hopelessness as individuals? Unfortunately, there isn’t an equation or formula we can apply to our lives to maximize our happiness (a theory known as hedonistic calculus). However, we can turn to a few famous thinkers for a bit of advice.
Arthur Schopenhauer, quoted above, argued for the acceptance that life is meaningless. Rather than seeking out obstacles in an attempt to strengthen our will, we should instead prioritize the minimization of suffering and misery. Doing so allows one to acknowledge nihilism while still actively resisting its grasp. I believe, given the context of C-nihilism, we can learn a thing or two from Schopenhauer.
Among the constant barrage of external pressures humanity is currently facing, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to spend our time living a minimally-challenging lifestyle. People often cite their ‘pandemic hobbies,’ – a particular skill they attempted to learn over the course of 2020 and 2021 – something I don’t think is necessary in living a satisfactory life today. We may interpret Schopenhauer as telling us to take that nap, or to stop being so hard on ourselves for not learning a new instrument or language over quarantine. As long as we balance the minimization of suffering and appreciate the little things, life will be alright.
Another thinker we can look to is Albert Camus. Famous for his contributions to the literary world with groundbreaking novels such as The Stranger, his philosophy centered around the importance of inserting value into an otherwise valueless life. Much like Schopenhauer, Camus believed that life itself has no inherent meaning (as outlined in The Myth of Sisyphus), but that rather than rolling over and accepting this fact, we must resist such universal indifference by interpolating our own values into everyday life. Sure, that beanie you crocheted won’t change the course of the universe, but if it makes you happy, you better crochet the hell out of that thing. Doing so not only sparks joy, but serves as an act of protest against the universe.
In thinking back to C-nihilism, applying both Schopenhauer and Camus’ lens onto our situation has some positive effects. Minimizing suffering allows us to take on only what the world throws our direction, whether it be COVID-19 scares, isolation purgatory or the consequences of long term symptoms. Inserting our own value allows us to appreciate the little things amongst a world of chaoticism. Maybe, just maybe, we can learn to combat C-nihilism, COVID-19 and anything else this anarchic world has to offer.