“We believe in nothing, Lebowski. Nothing. And tomorrow we come back and cut off your chonson”. –The Big Lebowski
A specter has been haunting the West for a hundred and fifty years- the specter of nihilism. The belief that life is meaningless and devoid of purpose. This is usually extended to the universe, which is seen as a place where atoms randomly smash into each other, for no reason whatsoever (1).
This deep pessimism about life is old, but it has reared its head in a new and troubling form- the black pill. The notion of the black pill is a derivation on the blue pill/red pill concept from the movie The Matrix. In that film to take the blue pill is to live a life of illusion, to willingly lose oneself in the reality our masters have constructed for us. To take the red pill is wake up to this conditioning, and escape the matrix of control that we’re immersed in. The black pill goes another direction.
To say that you’ve taken “the black pill” is to announce that you’ve finally come to see that life has no meaning. Those who embrace the black pill willingly accept the despair and hopelessness that come with it. Awake or asleep, it doesn’t really matter- life is pointless.
And I’m here to say to those people- don’t do it! Don’t take the black pill! Nothing could be further from the truth than the notion that life and the cosmos have no meaning or purpose. I’m here to make a case for the exact opposite view. That the cosmos is inherently full of meaning, and your life has a unique and important role to play its unfolding story.
But before I attempt to talk black pillers back from the abyss, I think it helps to see the black pill movement within the more general outbreak of nihilism in the modern West. How did we get here? What gave rise to modern nihilism and why does it linger so strongly? The basic answer is that over the past two hundred years the West has transitioned away from Christianity as the main source of its worldview, or value system. A set of values is crucial for the healthy functioning of any society or civilization. It tells us what life is about, why it has meaning, and what our role in that story is. The sociologist Peter Berger called this set of values a “sacred canopy”, which hangs above a culture. Jurgen Habermas called it a “lifeworld”, the background network of habits and cultural practices within which any society is embedded. The cultural theorist John David Ebert (following Peter Sloterdijk) calls it “a cultural immune system”. Without a set of values to guide us and tell us what life is all about- the immune system- we can get sick. We can become lost and without purpose. We can become filled with anxiety and emptiness. What’s life all about? What’s the point? Why should I bother? Or as Albert Camus once asked- “Why not suicide?”
So value systems telling us what life and the cosmos are all about are crucial to our healthy functioning as human beings. As the West moved into the 19th and 20thcenturies, it became increasingly unmoored from the Christian worldview that was its foundation for two thousand years. For the philosopher Nietzsche this development was a mixed blessing. On the one hand Nietzsche was critical of Christianity, so he thought the growth away from it was a step in the right direction. However, he also knew how dangerous the transition period to a new set of values could be. The great danger of the interim period is nihilism, a flood of meaninglessness that fills the vacuum left by the departure of the old values. Nietzsche predicted that the 20thcentury’s greatest sickness would be a widespread outbreak of nihilism. We had killed God. What were we going to replace it with? Nietzsche knew there was grave danger in this interregnum. He’s been proven correct in his predictions.
Modernity managed to stave off nihilism to some extent with its progress narrative. The progress story said that with the help of science and reason and the might of industrial capitalism, humanity was marching ever forward toward a better and better future, where one day all people would have abundance (2). This was our new reason for living- progress. But after two World Wars, widespread colonialism, environmental destruction, and rampant inequality across the global world-system, many came to question this progress narrative. It wasn’t matching the reality on the ground for many if not most people. So postmodernity- a widespread critical response to modernity- rejected this narrative, puncturing the ‘sacred canopy’ that hung precariously over modernity.
And that’s basically the context within which most black pillers now find themselves. Because that’s where we are today. With no canopy above us. Just a lot of fear and trembling under an open sky.
What has filled the void in our dangerous interregnum? Many things. Consumer capitalism has been all too happy to fill it with a cornucopia of products, many of which are addictive. A culture of hungry ghosts is good for business. The last forty years has also seen an explosive proliferation of subcultures, as people try to find identity and meaning somewhere. We’ve seen outbreaks of nativism, some healthy, many not. We’ve seen mass flights into the fantasy and distraction of entertainment. And perhaps most importantly for our story, we’ve seen a huge rise in anxiety and depression. And in suicide. And in destructive behaviors, like cutting and other forms of self-mutilation. Meaninglessness kills. If I were part of a secret society that had a depopulation agenda, spreading nihilism would certainly be part of any overall plan.
There’s a defiant aspect to the black pill movement that I have a lot of respect for. There’s definitely no taking the blue pill, where we willingly remain in a state of illusion. No, the black pill movement says fuck it, life is meaningless, and I’m willing to stare that fact straight in the face. There’s a huge amount of courage in that stance. It’s very similar to the stance taken by the existentialist philosophers when they too tried to deal with the problem of modern nihilism. For people like Nietzsche and Sartre, we were to take responsibility for our lives and destiny and create our own values, despite that fact that life has no inherent meaning. This is a heroic stance, and it’s probably a possibility for some very resourced people. But ultimately you’re still standing on an abyss. Ultimately you can still always say, that’s all well and good, but at the end of day, it’s still pointless. There’s no eternal or greater foundation upon which to stand. So even when we heroically create our own values in defiance of the abyss, the specter of nihilism still lurks disturbingly close to the surface.
The problem with all this heroism in the face of the abyss is that it’s not necessary. It’s not necessary because it gets the universe wrong, as well as our role in it. First of all, the universe is not just some container within which a whole series of random happenings are occurring. The new cosmology coming out over the past forty years now sees the evolution of the cosmos as a single unfolding event. This is how Brian Swimme puts it in his book The Universe Is a Green Dragon- “Everything that exists in the universe came from a common origin. The material of your body and the material of my body are intrinsically related because they emerged from and are caught up in a single energetic event. Our ancestry stretches back through the life forms and into the stars, back to the beginnings of the primeval fireball. This universe is a single multiform energetic unfolding of matter, mind, intelligence, and life” (3).
We don’t sit outside the universe looking at it. We’re an expression of the evolutionary unfolding of the cosmos. After vast scales of time the earth is peopling, to use Allan Watts’ phrase (4), and we’re an amalgamation of all that has come before us. That’s a pretty amazing story. And if we see the images coming out of the Hubble and other enormous telescopes, the universe is a mind-blowingly extraordinary place. But- when it comes right down to it, whether its the beauty of the cosmos, or the wonder we might share at all of the entities in it, from stars to whales, it still doesn’t solve the fundamental problem above. The universe might be pretty wild, but it’s still without inherent meaning for us.
Here’s how I think we can discover that this is not true. Here’s how we can see that the universe is actually up to something, and that we were born to play an important role in its ever emerging story. We do it by willingly allowing the universe to use our lives for its purposes. And we can do this by actively surrendering, by yielding to what wants to flow through us. And by doing this we’ll start to see that some very real intelligence will begin to direct our lives.
Joseph Campbell used to say that each one of us has a destiny, but we have to choose it. I think he’s right. We have a destiny, a cosmic path waiting for us, but we have to willingly align with it. We have to sense into what that destiny might be, not a simple task, and then choose to live into that story. The only way to falsify what I’m saying here is by trying an experiment. To do it for six months would be great, and one year would be ideal. For an extended period of time, wake up every morning and say a small prayer. You can address it to someone if you like- such as God, Holy One, Odin- whatever, it doesn’t matter. It’s the opening and the shift in attention that matters. Just ask to be of service that day in whatever way this greater force/entity wants to use you. Then at night say a quick thanks for being able to be of service that day.
If we orient in this way for an extended period of time, by listening to where we're being called, by attentively observing the signals that life is giving us, my experience is that we’ll be taken on a journey that could not have been predicted beforehand. More and more synchronicities will begin to happen. The right book is given to you at the right time. A conversation with a random stranger gives you information you’ve been seeking, or sends you down a road you were supposed to go. At other times the 'gift of fear' alerts us to steer clear of certain paths. I don’t know how the ontology of all this works. But what becomes clear over time is that if we open our sails wide, and ask to be of service to a higher power (to use the 12 Step language), we’ll be blown along to new and surprising shores. We can call the wind that blows us the Tao, or the Holy Spirit, or whatever. But something wants to live and evolve through us, and if we allow that to happen, we’ll fulfill our destinies in the process.
If we allow ourselves to be allured by the pull of this greater intelligence, we’ll learn that the universe is not the cold dank void that nihilism tells us it is. Rather it’s a place that’s intelligent and alive, with some greater agenda that needs us to fulfill part of its story. Life aligned in this way becomes a riveting adventure, full of mystery and meaning. We get to “become who we are”, as Nietzsche urges us to do, but it won’t be a solo journey on the edge of a cruel abyss. Instead we’ll find ourselves being woven into a rich tapestry, full of challenge and wonder, full of intrigue and excitement, and yes, sometimes full of danger too. Because when we live into our cosmic callings there's a decent chance we'll be brought into direct conflict with the forces of stagnation and destruction that beset the earth. The cosmos seems to have different plans than the dark ones currently being foisted upon our planet. So we may get called into a cosmic struggle if we live in this way. But it's worth it. And more warriors are desperately needed in that fight.
The notion that life and the cosmos have no inherent meaning couldn’t be further from the truth. But don’t just take my word for it. Try the experiment. Each morning bravely and humbly ask to be of service to the greater spheres of which we’re embedded, and then observe what happens over time. We’ll start to see that something is guiding us, interacting with us, flowing and living through us. And then life will explode with meaning and purpose. At that point the black pills can be set aside. They won’t be necessary anymore.
May more and more people turn away from the nihilism that has darkened our time, and realize the destiny that awaits them. If we do this en masse, the future on this earth will be an interesting one, and quite possibly even a glorious one. May we sail through this dangerous interregnum together. A new earth awaits.
(1) “That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the débris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” ― Bertrand Russell, A Free Man's Worship
(2) Cf. Karl Lowith, Meaning In History (1949), for more about the progress narrative, and how it had its antecedents in Judeo-Christian religion/thinking.
(3) Brian Swimme, Universe Is A Green Dragon, excerpt- https://www.context.org/iclib/ic12/swimme/
(4) YouTube, “Allan Watts “the Earth is People-ing” animation”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppyF1iQ0-dM