How mortality, futility and insignificance set me free.
Words & images © Paul Ransom
Pointless? they cried. No way! That’s not a recipe for wellbeing. It’s a prescription for immorality and despair. And what about ennui? some wondered1.
When you boldly declare that life is essentially meaningless and that, by accepting this, you ushered in unprecedented feelings of lightness and liberation, none of the previous objections will come as a surprise. After all, we live in a culture predicated not only on a slew of Essentialist2 ideas about meaning and purpose but as members of a busy-making species. Everywhere we are impelled towards action-oriented, goal-focused striving; activities which are then judged and ranked according to a background scheme of largely pre-determined and socially visible values. Our commonly expressed notions of attainment and success, status and self-worth, merit and desirability, contribution and legacy are propagated and sustained in a seed bed of Essentialist belief.
Viewed from an evolutionary perspective, much of this makes sense. It is hard to imagine our early forebears thriving solely on a diet of Taoist reflection. Clearly, environmental factors drove a suite of survivalist adaptations, from tailored skill sets to orthodoxies of clan organisation and belief. In addition, as our brains evolved and ever more complex neurological and psycho-emotional states arose, our increasingly fine-tuned intelligence and enhanced sense of self served to magnify our awareness of death and sensitivity to threat, which in turn caused us to ask and subsequently answer questions like why and what for. (Cue, creation myths, gods, higher purpose beliefs, et al.) Furthermore, as social animals, we all emerge against a multi-variant backdrop of external influence. Indeed, it can be argued that our sense of conscious self is (largely) socially constructed. External inputs like language, cultural/historical context, parental influence, and our early interactions with peers and significant others clearly shape our identity and, by extension, the values we adopt and the objectives we pursue.
All of which may cause you to wonder why I have chosen to embrace what I sometimes call Pointless Being or Ecstatic Nihilism. (Though some will prefer terms like Existentialism, Happy Nihilism or Effortless Living, the wording is less important than both the intent and the outcome.) The idea of life being pointless, or of having no prescribed alpha meaning or over-arching purpose, will strike many as counter-intuitive. It sounds defeatist, depressing and, potentially, downright unethical. Still others would argue that it represents a capitulation, or mere refusal – a smoke screen for selfishness, laziness and misanthropy.
While true that Nihilism and its philosophical cousins can work to underpin forms of anti-social bitterness and destructive despair, this is but one take on it. For, just as deeply felt religious and ethical convictions sometimes green-light suicide and slaughter, so too can an embrace of pointlessness be a trigger for authentic happiness and deep gratitude. The ‘point’ here is that individuals routinely adapt schools of thought to serve their own agendas; a trick of rationalisation we all perform, consciously and unconsciously. Basically, this is what I have done – a process I outlined in my 2019 book The Pointless Revolution.
(Insert blatant self-promotional reference and shameless sales pitch here.)
Framed in this fashion, the ‘meaningless lifestyle’ can be understood as a rationalisation conjured in the face of mortality, identity, and the vast, fluid, branching network we experience as reality. In other words, Existentialism as a response to a raft of profoundly existential questions.
- What is the core process of existence – what does it mean ‘to exist’?
- What is self, or being, and what is its relationship with the rest of the universe?
- What is the experience we call life and, by extension, what is the phenomenon we call death?
- Are these processes imbued with an essential meaning and/or purpose – and if not, what then?
These may seem like uselessly cosmic musings, yet, examined fearlessly, they open out onto more terrestrial ground. Moreover, they invite an emotional unburdening; a letting go of baggage and drama and the dissolution of our various conceits. In addition – and perhaps most tellingly – they engender the kind of perspective that allows us to unwind habitual narratives of self, reset the defaults of desire, fess up to denial, and tune out the externally mandated diktats of observance and obligation.
Fighting talk, you say. However, the point of all this pointlessness goes way beyond reflexive resistance. Rather, at the heart of a meaningless universe, lies acceptance – and at the core of acceptance, the quelling of fear3. It is not hard to imagine how a downgrading of dread might help us to live happier, more genuinely self-authored lives – because when we act without the fear of punishing gods, and we explore options without the numerous pass/fail binaries of karmic KPIs, herd approval and market-driven musts, we are licensed to make genuinely free4 choices.
Again, clever sounding…but how does it map out?
For me, the daily experience of living without Essentialist meaning and objective is where the true value of this approach lies. Indeed, the lived and felt experience preceded the formal ordering of my thoughts into labels, books and blog posts. In fact, one of the first things I discovered about the pointless p.o.v. (before I even had a name for it) was that it delivered. Happiness. Equanimity. Thankfulness. Perspective. And, crucially, a release from my own previously self-punishing narratives, from the voices of command and control I had internalised. From hubris and delusion. In short, it was liberating.
Boiling it down further, it released a huge pressure valve. To be frank, learning to accept that my existence was simply a side effect of external processes and that all striving and wisdom was ultimately futile was a relief. I was neither anointed nor uniquely condemned. I was not here for some mysterious ‘reason’. There was no fated path for me to stray from. Thus, the relentless cosmic/moral exam was cancelled and, as such, all socially and divinely imposed measures of my supposed worth or otherwise became just so much irrelevant noise. In turn, the command economy of should became the free market of can.
Aside from being licenced to stray off-message, the practical upsides have been abundant.
- Time doing what I actually want
- Focus on self-authored, genuinely rewarding (enjoyable) projects and other goals
- Freedom to experiment
- Taking pleasure in the small things
- Enjoying my own company
- Feeling grateful
- Owning my shit
- Stillness (time for quiet reflection)
- Time doing what I am ‘meant’ to
- Sacrificing present wellbeing in pursuit of socially defined/visible success markers
- Tolerating predators, drama queens, fantasists and narcissists in pursuit of supposedly worthwhile career, financial and reputational goals
- Trying to be cool, wise, ethical, etc
- Deliberate ‘self-improvement’ projects
- Endeavouring to solve all the world’s problems, etc
- Feeling hard done by
- Expectation and/or entitlement
- Bucket list bullshit
- Habitual busyness (and associated distraction)
- Time wasted trying to ascertain the ultimate truth of everything
Plus, threaded throughout…an embrace of mortality. Not simply a diminution of fear but a deep thankfulness. Perhaps many will consider it unthinkable, yet it has been my experience that a ‘befriending’ of death has:
- Imbued life with even more beauty
- Granted me licence to live (I mean, really live, not just survive, or cling on in abject terror)
- Heightened the value of each unrefundable moment
- Rendered denial almost impossible
- Busted the various myths of self-importance
Curiously, when we realise that life has no legislated meaning or grand revelatory/cathartic arc, it is as if the very smallness and ephemerality of it frees us to find exquisite (and perhaps unexpected) forms of micro-purpose.
In the absence of dictation, write your own story…and do it with a flourish and panache that no petty tyrant god or fee-gouging guru can hope to match.
However, accepting that (ultimately) nothing really matters challenges us to re-calibrate our moral compass. For example, I now choose a broadly post-Enlightenment, Humanist/Rationalist perspective – with accents on mutuality, compassion and kindness, as well as a species-wide view that situates us inside nature – not because I have to or they accord with Essentialist dogma, or I will go to Hell if I don’t, but because I recognise that my true self-interest lies in respect for and an understanding of others, be they human, bovine, avian or otherwise. (And yes, the belief ‘I am not a total arsehole’ does help me feel good about myself.)
- I mention this specifically because it is commonly thought that without a believable threat of culturally sanctioned enforcement we would soon be tempted into immoral and cruel behaviours. Although the veneer of civilisation is thin and fragile, and powerful drivers like fear, sex and status seeking can overwhelm our better angels, the ‘de-militarisation of moral policing’ is instead an invitation to fill the void of former punishment with something more uplifting than a fear of capture. Deeper still, it nudges us towards a fuller accountability and away from the many pitfalls of buck-passing. I own the policy, accept due credit and blame for its outcomes, and do not bail to God, destiny or custom to legitimise my actions or excuse predation and cruelty.
In short, by quitting the rat race of legislated striving and quieting the ‘meant to’ mantras of spiritual correctness, I have assumed a greater authorship for the story of my life. As a result, I have developed an almost complete immunity to the lures, bribes and barbs associated with the constantly upgrading Like-a-thon and ever-present sense of lack that drives so many of us to mortgage wellbeng for distant dreams of great reward.
The pointless revolution collapses that distance by situating rewards in the present and near term, by placing greater emphasis on process. The dance itself is the reward. A lack of applause or celebrity does not diminish the joy of it.
Cultures and economies put much effort into focusing our desire, striving, and self-worth on external, mandated objectives. They frequently employ blunt binaries and reductive criteria for the assessment and comparison of success and virtue, and they threaten and opiate by turns with the tropes of essentialised meaning and the denialist, oxymoronic fantasies of eternal life.
In The Pointless Revolution I argue instead for a re-imagined holy trinity. To quote: 5
- Exalt the advent of your death – it will save you from fear.
- Embrace your utter insignificance – it will free you from chains.
- Revel in the futility and pointlessness of your existence – for now you are free to create.
Death, insignificance and futility may not seem like ideal travelling companions but when we transfigure our fear of them into acceptance and gratitude, we can free ourselves to enjoy the brief and beautiful event of life – not for its trophies and tick boxes but simply because it is.
To be, not necessarily to do…that is the point.
PS: For more on these themes, there are two related articles on this site. 1) In Praise Of Stillness. 2) Your Pointlessly Revolutionary Low Fat Listicle.
1: Ennui: a deep boredom, a sense of listlessness and despair emerging from a lack of activity and/or stimulation. Colloquially, the term is also used to indicate the kind of ‘yeah, so what, seen it all’ mindset associated with middle age. In other words, jaded, lapsing perhaps into bitterness.
2: The Essentialist worldview insists that the universe has hard-wired meanings and objectives. In other words, that there is an essential meaning or truth which it is our task to uncover or fulfil. Essentialists variously argue for narrative/evolutionary arcs, destiny & karma, and higher ethical and/or grand cosmic purpose. You will often hear them say that everything happens ‘for a reason’. In the Essentialist mindset, things unfold according to an externally (divinely or mysteriously) mandated plan. Thus, we are merely glove puppets in a giant cosmic moral hero drama intended to reveal…(insert franchised meaning of life, universe, etc).
3: Far from pathologising fear, it is clear that it operates as both a vital self-preservation mechanism and as what psychologists and cognition scientists refer to as a framing effect. Our fear – or threat aversion bias – effectively frames our decision making (and indeed our worldview), skewing our perceptions and understanding towards safety-first settings. We see how this maps out in our assessments of ‘the other’, and in decisions we make around politics, finance, relationships and significant life choices. In addition, fear of failure is a common factor in decision making and, for many, is a powerful omnipresent narrative.
4: I use the term ‘free’ here advisedly, cognisant of the unresolved conundrums of free will & determinism, and of the fact that our sense of conscious agency is typically overstated. Indeed, the neuro sciences have illustrated over the course of decades that much of our decision/choice making is driven by unconscious cognitive mechanisms (biases & heuristics) and that we are heavily influenced by framing effects.
5: From Chapter 5 – Time For Living.