-the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless.
-extreme skepticism maintaining that nothing in the world has a real existence.
When I told the two people that help me with this blog that I was going to write a piece on nihilism, they quickly tried to talk me out of it by politely suggesting that the previous blog post on the topic of “People. Profit. Planet.” would be a more interesting subject.
Though they didn’t say it, I’m pretty sure that they were thinking the following:
a) most people don’t think about nihilism on a daily basis so why write about it?, b) no one really knows how to pronounce it so why write about it?, and, 3) it’s far too esoteric so you’ll put people to sleep. And they’re right.
On its surface, nihilism is esoteric, it’s difficult to pronounce, and most people don’t think about it. What we fail to recognize is that leaders in every sphere of influence are surrounded by nihilistic thoughts and tendencies every day.
Nihilism is a philosophical doctrine that takes many shapes and forms. There is all kind of nihilism ranging from Epistemological and Existential nihilism to Metaphysical, Meteorological, Moral and Political nihilism.
At one level you almost have to be a professional philosopher to understand the concept but, on the other hand, it’s really pretty basic. Nihilism is a lack of belief…in anything.
Moral nihilists assert that morality doesn’t exist. Epistemological nihilists reject the notion that knowledge can be externally confirmed as true. Existential nihilists believe that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. In one form or another that belief sent the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) to an early, self-imposed grave.
And political nihilists reject the necessity of the most fundamental social and political structures such as family, law, and government. (If you live in Portland, Oregon, political nihilists are the second cousins once removed anarchists that hang out near Voodoo Donuts on SW 3rd Avenue!)
Nihilism is a lack of belief…in anything. And it’s right there, at the intersection of lack of belief in anything and a constructive vision for the future that nihilism is rebutted by individuals who dare to take up the mantel of leadership.
In nearly 40 years of adulthood, I have never met, read about, or studied a constructive leader who is nihilistic. Leaders who positively impact their sphere of influence are, by their very nature, hopeful, focused and resilient.
I learned about one such person during a casual conversation with a colleague of mine. My colleague and I were reflecting on our careers: about how fortunate we are to be able to do something we love doing.
As he ponders retirement, I asked my friend what he planned on doing during the next phase of his life, which led him to reflect upon his mother and her seemingly lack of retirement. He said that, as a boy, he never knew what to expect when he came down to breakfast because often there would be another young child—boy and girl—joining them around the table.
His mother was often the first call of the foster care agency in their community, and she rarely said “no” to a child in need of either permanent or temporary support. All total, she raised 44 foster children, some for just a couple of weeks and some for several years. She never received a penny for her efforts. She once told her son, “If I can feed them, clothe them, love them and then send them on their way, then I’ve contributed something good to this world.”
On the occasion of her 90th birthday, a number of her children showed up to celebrate and give thanks for the amazing life and leadership of this remarkable woman.
Off and on, I have had the opportunity to think about this story. How does a person raise 44-plus foster children? Who has the time, space, energy, patience or resources to do such a thing? Aren’t there social service agencies that take care of such difficult cases? Emotionally, how do you handle the heartaches borne by the stories of such extreme abandonment? What drove my colleague’s mother to lead in the way of perpetual goodness, when many of the so-called great thinkers of the world could only see meaninglessness?
It all boils down to this:
As humans, we have a choice—nihilism or hope. Nihilism is a lonely road, barren of any kind of joy or beauty. Hope—well, hope is Mrs. Dorothy Jones of Waterloo, Iowa. Her road was full of color and life. In fact, had Nietzsche met Mrs. Jones, he may well have lived to a ripe old age.