I Don’t Know. Not Everything has Meaning. And Nihilism. Not What You Think.

  • Essay by Anne Lamott about what she’s learned at age 69;
  • NYT’s Brad Stulberg about traumatic experiences and finding, or not, new meaning;
  • A summary of my recent thinking about the narrative bias, metaphor, and “meaning”;
  • Considering what “nihilism” is and is not;
  • Revisiting Derek Muller’s Veritasium video about “Our Greatest Delusion.”

Washington Post, Anne Lamott, 20 Nov 2023: Opinion | At 33, I knew everything. At 69, I know something much more important.

The writer is a novelist. Despite the article’s date, I didn’t see this until this morning. She begins by describing the trials of life at her age — mostly the news, dealing with a dying friend, dealing with aches and pains.

I don’t think I could have borne up under all this 20 years ago when I thought I knew so much about life. That was not nearly as much as I knew at 33, which is when we know more than we ever will again. But age has given me the ability to hang out without predicting how things will sort out this time (mostly — depending on how I’ve slept).

In many of Albert Bierstadt’s Western paintings, there is a darkness on one side, maybe a mountain or its shadow. Then toward the middle, animals graze or drink from a lake or stream. And then at the far right or in the sky, splashes of light lie like shawls across the shoulders of the mountains. The great darkness says to me what I often say to heartbroken friends — “I don’t know.”

Well, I’ve said something very similar several times. The honesty of the scientist over the clergyman is that the former is willing to say “I don’t know,” and you don’t have to be a scientist to understand that not everything has “meaning” in the way most people think meaning exists in the world.

Is there meaning in the Maine shootings?

I don’t know. Not yet.

My white-haired husband said on our first date seven years ago that “I don’t know” is the portal to the richness inside us. This insight was one reason I agreed to a second date (along with his beautiful hands). It was a game-changer. Twenty years earlier, when my brothers and I were trying to take care of our mother in her apartment when she first had Alzheimer’s, we cried out to her gerontology nurse, “We don’t know if she can stay here, how to help her take her meds, how to get her to eat better since she forgets.” And the nurse said gently, “How could you know?”

This literally had not crossed our minds. We just thought we were incompetent. In the shadow of the mountain of our mother’s decline, we hardly knew where to begin. So we started where we were, in the not knowing.

Here’s a Bierstadt. (Here’s a link to a larger graphic.)

In my younger days when the news was too awful, I sought meaning in it. Now, not so much. The meaning is that we have come through so much, and we take care of each other and, against all odds, heal, imperfectly. We still dance, but in certain weather, it hurts. (Okay, always.)

The portals of age also lead to the profound (indeed earthshaking) understanding that people are going to do what people are going to do: They do not want my always-good ideas on how to have easier lives and possibly become slightly less annoying.

There’s acceptance; not everything is a crisis to which one need respond, or have an opinion about.

Another gift of aging is the precipitous decline in melodrama. Enjoying how unremarkable life is takes practice and time, and then the little things start to shine and delight. Life gets smaller and in its smallness it starts winking at you. On my first day back in New Mexico recently, the high desert looked barren and brown. Pretty, yes, but a little dead. Then the tiny desert flowers, yellow, lavender, magenta and baby blue, made their way into my consciousness, and the earth’s shades of ochre and red started to warm me, and before long the formerly dead desert was alive and awash in dynamic, undulating streams of color.

One of the things I always liked about the desert, too.


Right along these lines.

NY Times, Brad Stulberg guest essay, 25 Nov 2023: Not Everything Has to Be Meaningful

The writer had a traumatic experience.

In 2017, I was blindsided by the sudden onset of obsessive-compulsive disorder and secondary depression. For the better part of a year, my days were consumed by intrusive thoughts and feelings of angst, dread and despair. It was a terrifying and disorienting ordeal.

Normally, I process whatever I’m going through via my work, writing — suddenly, I could hardly muster enough focus to string together a sentence. My favorite foods tasted like cardboard. I couldn’t find peace, let alone joy, anywhere, not even in my newborn son. The pain of that was excruciating, like nothing I’d experienced before.

I had always been — and to a large extent, still am — an optimistic, growth-oriented and meaning-seeking person. Part of what I found so confounding about the experience was how utterly meaningless it felt. I’ve read many personal development and psychology books, all of which implored me to grow from struggle and find meaning in suffering. This suffering, however, felt as if it existed solely to create pain.

Four months into my recovery, I shared my concerns with my therapist, who herself has experienced bouts of anxiety and depression. “Why does what you are experiencing right now need to have some greater purpose?” she asked me. “Not everything has to be meaningful and you don’t have to grow from it. Why can’t it just suck, at least for the time being?”

The essay goes on to discuss victims of similar traumatic events. Their experiences shook their ideas of meaning. It took them a while, but most of them came around and found meaning in their new circumstances.

That’s not to say we ought to wallow in despair or become nihilistic. Pain and suffering are often followed by meaning, but sometimes that meaning comes days, weeks or even years after the experience.

As you heal from hardship, you can integrate struggles into your identity. For particularly challenging or painful experiences, you may need time to wield an appropriate response. If you are going to experience growth and meaning, these attributes must come in their own time. The bigger and more challenging the experience, the longer it takes.

Patience is crucial, but it’s also hard. When you are in the thick of disorder your perception of time can slow down. Minutes feel like hours; hours feel like days; days feel like weeks.

(Thus it seems to me, meaning is subjective.) The essay ends:

It seems then, that the most important thing to do when in the midst of a life upheaval is to release yourself from any expectations altogether. Be patient and be kind to yourself. Seek help and social support. Do what you can to hold onto the fact that what feels like forever now probably won’t in the future. If you find immediate meaning and growth in your experience, that’s great. But if not, that’s OK, too. Sometimes simply showing up and getting through is plenty. Perhaps the real growth is learning to let it be enough.


Once again, to summarize some points made in recent weeks and months. Among the various psychological biases evolution has built into the human mind (along with motivated reasoning and confirmation bias and many others) is the narrative bias, a formalization of the mind’s alertness for cause and effect, as a way of understanding the world and being able to survive in it. Cause and effect: beginning middle end: everything happens for a reason. Many events in our environment *are* the results of cause and effect, and if we had not understood those, we would not have survived. But objective understanding of the universe around us shows that many many things are coincidences, or simply random events (especially at the level of quantum mechanics). Coincidences are circumstances that don’t have any “meaning” in terms of a higher-level sequence of cause and effect. Yet humans prefer stories — beginnings middles ends — because they appease that itch for such narrative.

Stories indulge in the human preference for narrative. Metaphors extend that preference up a level: surface events relate to events at some more abstract, or different level. And “meaning” ascribes events to some even higher level, a grand cosmic narrative in which, again, everything happens for a reason.

This is how our minds are built. Objective understanding of the universe shows that “meaning” doesn’t exist outside our minds’ projection of evolutionary survival mechanisms onto the broader, indifferent universe. That’s just how it is.


This is not “nihilism” as the above article alluded. Per Wikipedia, nihilism is

a family of views within philosophy that rejects generally accepted or fundamental aspects of human existence, such as knowledge, morality, or meaning.

There have been different nihilist positions, including that human values are baseless, that life is meaningless, that knowledge is impossible, or that some set of entities does not exist or is meaningless or pointless.

Here’s an example of a philosophical position that suffered from lack of actual knowledge about the objective universe — as virtually all philosophical positions over thousands of years have. They operated in the dark; they asserted without evidence; they speculated. They were a series of failed propositions gradually overtaken by Enlightenment knowledge and the scientific revolution and our current understanding of the universe.

Briefly, on those four points: human values are not baseless; they are based on evolutionary principles of group survival. Life may be meaningless on the cosmic stage; but it is subjectively meaningful within human culture. Knowledge is perfectly possible; the knowledge of science and technology gained over the past two or three centuries has given us our modern world. That some set of entities does not exist? That I’ll grant. See previous point; it’s sad to think that people’s lives or purposes depend on assuaging or pandering to the desires of supernatural entities.


On this point of “nihilism” I recall that early Veritasium video that I posted years ago, in which host Derek Muller visited Chernobyl. Posted about here. But I’ll link the video again.

See earlier post for my quotes from Derek Muller about his visit.

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