Regarding Nihilism and Negation
In the South Korean movie “Parasite,” which in 2020 was the first foreign language film to win the Oscar for best picture, there is a scene and speech that captures a nihilistic philosophy that’s widespread in the world today. After a torrential downpour that floods their basement apartment, the father and son are lying on mattresses on the floor of a gym along with hundreds of other refugees from the storm. The son plaintively asks, “Dad, what is your plan?” “Ki-woo,” the father replies, “do you know what kind of plan never fails? No plan at all. No plan. You know why?” “If you make a plan, life never works out that way. Look around us. Did these people think, ‘let’s spend the night in a gym?’ That’s why people shouldn’t make plans. With no plan nothing can go wrong.” “And if something spins out of control, it doesn’t matter. Whether you kill someone, or betray your country, none of it fucking matters. Got it?” Soon after, in the most shocking scene in the film, the father murders the wealthy businessman he works for as a driver. He expresses utter confusion as to why he did it. But the discerning viewer understands that the stink of poverty, plus the nihilistic philosophy the father succinctly expressed in the gym, provides ample motive to a seemingly spontaneous murder. Nihilism is a reaction born of conflating the fact that there is little good in the world, with life itself. The nihilist comes to believe that there is no such thing as goodness. Nihilism, in short, is confusing the world, which is made by man, with life, which is not. The cliché is true — life is good. However most people self-centeredly take that to mean that living is good, which often it is not. It’s a curious thing, but people living close to the edge of survival in poor countries are often happier than rich or poor people living in wealthy countries. As “Parasite” shows, misery is not just a product of one’s material conditions, but of comparison. Which isn’t to say that the poor should be content with their lot in this dreadfully unequal and unjust world. In the movie, the rich are blissfully unaware and naïve, while the poor are portrayed, albeit sympathetically, as crude and nihilistic. Whether rich or poor however, a deep hatred and bitterness lies buried in the roots of nihilism. We see this in the total cynicism of so-called populists around the world, who hypocritically pretend to speak for the disenfranchised — the millions of people ground down by the machinery of capitalism. Nihilistic people, who no longer believe in anything, give rise to nihilistic leaders, who only believe in money and power. Nihilism is a flesh-eating disease of the heart. It feeds on a hatred of life originating in an unexamined worldview. It represents a complete surrender to darkness. If one has even a moment’s feeling of appreciation and gratitude during the day for the smell of the air after a storm, or the sight of light and shadow through a lushly canopied tree, or the sound of the laughter of a little girl, one cannot be a nihilist. I don’t know how strange “Parasite” is to Koreans, but irrespective of the cultural and linguistic differences, it’s a strange movie experience for Americans. But after half an hour one comes to know the characters a little, and realize that the film’s portrayal of the wildly different worlds that the rich and poor live in is universal. Paradoxically, the antithesis of nihilism is the movement of negation. The movement of negation begins spontaneously when one intensely but passively watches thoughts and emotions as they arise, in the same way one watches the ripples of a stream. It’s not difficult if one is self-aware, and has a feeling for nature. With a playful attitude, experiment with observation. Let your sensory awareness grow very quick, quicker than the habit of thought splitting itself off from itself as the observer. Watch your thoughts like dead leaves floating by on a slow stream. Watch without judgment or choice, without making the slightest effort to direct or change one’s thoughts. One begins to feel ‘I don’t know anything.’ Be fine with it, don’t fear or resist it. For it is the first step toward realization. Unexpectedly, thought and time yield to effortless attention. With the complete ending of thought, time ends. And when time, which is a construct of thought, ends, the actuality of death, which is inseparable from life, draws near without fear. And extraordinarily, with direct awareness of the actuality and inseparability of death, there is love. Nihilism is easy to fall prey to in the world today. The movement of negation and the impersonal love that flows from it are the antidote to it. So is there only the darkness of human consciousness and the world, giving rise to widespread nihilism, and its negation during meditation in the individual? Martin LeFevre
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Martin LeFevre, a contemplative, philosopher and writer in northern California, serves as a contributing writer for The Seoul Times. His "Meditations" explore and offer insights on spiritual, philosophical and political questions in the global society. LeFevre's philosophical thesis proposes a new theory of human nature. He welcomes dialogue. firstname.lastname@example.org
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