My new girlfriend thinks that nothing really matters, and that hence, you shoudn’t really worry about anything. “Nothing really matters,” she says. “So why worry?” It’s an intriguingly dumb philosophy that only gets smarter the longer that you think about it. It’s reductive, but it makes sense. Indeed: why worry about anything?
Nothing really matters anyway. Is this true, or not true? As I get older, I realize that I am getting less smarter — or anyway, this is a strange thing that is happening. I can’t tell what is true or not true anymore. But my girlfriend is young and confident, and maybe she’s right.
Her philosophy, at least, that nothing really matters, enables her to do things. She can handle things with a light gracefulness that I could only dream of. “Why worry,” she says, in her beautiful voice, with her beautiful eyes — and I don’t know why I worry, but I still do. Her philosophy allows her to handle things. Meanwhile, I go to the supermarket and have panic attacks over all the choices. In supermarkets, I become like an Eastern European immigrant who is just seeing America for the first time.
“So many choices!” I exclaim.
“The nuts!” I say. “Look at how many different kinds of nuts that they have!”
And then I panic and can’t choose.
My girlfriend, meanwhile, handles all of this with a kind of quiet grace. She just selects a brand of cashews from the shelf and buys them. So easy! Why did I never think of that? She can do everything, she can handle everything; she never gets stressed. But I do.
…It’s weird because my new girlfriend also has a copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being in her apartment, which I started re-reading, which is maybe how I started having this whole discussion with her about things having meaning, I can’t remember. I can’t really remember conversations anymore. This is another thing that is happening.
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the author, Milan Kundera, talks about the idea of lightness and weight.
He talks about the idea of eternal return, which is an idea that the philosopher Nietzsche made up. The idea is that things either happen over and over again, or they don’t. But the point of the idea is that things must really happen over and over again, in every detail. Like, if you go out to buy a quart of milk this morning from the 7-11, that is either a thing that happens over and over again, throughout time, recurring — or it doesn’t ever happen again at all.
Like my girlfriend’s deep thoughts, it seems like a stunningly weird and dumb idea until it doesn’t.
“If things only happen once,” Milan Kundera writes, “then they may as well have never happened at all.” Think about that for a second.
If you just go out to buy milk in the morning, and that’s a thing that never recurs in time, then what does it mean? If everything only happens once, then what meaning does it have?
Kundera uses the example of a war that occurs between two African tribes in the 17th century. These wars happened. We, as dumb Westerner people, don’t even know the names of the tribes. But it happened. It’s a real thing that happened. A hundred thousand Africans died in excruciating pain over this war that we don’t even know the name of. If it only happened once, then it’s dismissable. It’s a thing that you can make a joke about, even.
But what if it was to happen again and again?
The same war, in every detail, over and over again?
It’s the most important idea that I can think of, for some reason. If the same war keeps happening, then it’s suddenly not light, then it has weight, and meaning. But if nothing ever happens again, then nothing has meaning. Things are either dismissable, or not. Things are either light, or they’re heavy.
Say you were to drop your iPhone on the ground this morning and break it. That’s bad, but it’s dismissable. It was a mistake. Anyone could do that. Not your fault.
…But what if it was to happen over and over again? How would you feel about it then? It’s not really just a mistake anymore, in that case.
Pause. Breathe and think. Say maybe you’re thinking about breaking up with your girlfriend tonight. Should you do it? You agonize over it. You list her good qualities and her bad qualities in your head. What is the right decision?
If everything only happens once, then the answer is this: there’s no right decision.
If everything only happens once, then the world is an incomplete sketch, a fragment of a larger dreamscape that we once dreamed of. You’re thinking about breaking up with your girlfriend. So, should you break up with her or not? If life is just time, and has no deeper weight, then there is no way to know. Nothing has happened before, and the things that will happen — the things that you are about to do — will plummet out of sight. Like a weight being dropped into the ocean, your actions will disappear. You can’t know what to do, because there is no guide. The world is an incomplete sketch for a world that we maybe just dreamed of.
“…Nothing really matters,” my girlfriend says with her pretty eyes, “so why worry?” She may be right, but the entire idea bothers me. I want there to be weight. I want my choices to matter. She can pick and not linger, but I stand there in the aisle of the store, my hand hovering over different consumer products. All I know is that I can’t choose. She can choose but I can’t choose. I can’t choose. I want there to be meaning, but in the meantime, I can’t choose. I can’t choose, but maybe someone will help choose for me, in this valley. In this valley of time that we all live in.