How to build a castle in clouds – nihilism, existential crisis, and the cycle of meaning

The concept of a midlife crisis was always weird to me. Why wait until you’re middle age to question the choices you’ve made? I’ve had all the symptoms of a midlife crisis at least once a year since I was 25. The cycle seems to have accelerated recently, and now only takes about 3-4 months to complete.

To those of you who are not accustomed to having a midlife crisis each quarter, here’s a simple diagram of how it works like:

In the beginning, there is Hope. I discover some way to make a meaningful contribution. I feel like I can make an impact, and that it matters in the grand scheme of things. I might have no idea what I’m doing yet at this stage and feel a bit overwhelmed, but I know it’s important, and that I should keep going.

After I follow my bliss for a while, I might reach a Peak. It’s when I finally have a good grasp on what I’m meant to do. I’ve achieved a lot already (just watch this magnificent castle!), and will achieve even more if I stay on my path. Luckily, the path ahead is clear, I know my life mission, and I know the only thing I need is consistent dedication. There’s no need for hope anymore. Whenever you’re at the Peak, everything is clear and certain.

Sooner or later, my perfect ultimate mission turns out to have flaws. There’s either some unforeseen circumstances I hadn’t taken into account, or better yet, I get to achieve my own grand goal, only to realize this isn’t quite what I wanted. Enter the Crisis mode. Any certainty you might have had before is slowly replaced by doubt. Crisis is like having a rug pulled from under your feet, like running so far away off a cliff that you suddenly notice there’s no ground beneath anymore.

Whenever I lose the ground, I find myself in a Free Fall. At this stage it’s impossible to form any goals at all. There’s nothing to hold onto, and the world is a scary, cold, and random place. Everything is arbitrary and therefore meaningless. Why on Earth choose one thing over another? None of it is going to matter anyway. If Peak is a state of certainty, and Crisis fosters doubt, Free Fall dives deep all the way into nihilism.

Hope and Crisis are transitory states and don’t usually last very long. Peak and Free Fall are relatively stable and both feel like they’re going to last forever.

This is not about motivation. It’s about (lack of) meaning.

When I first noticed this cycle, I thought it’s a matter of motivation and energy levels. When I’m at the Peak, I’m so excited that I can move mountains. When I’m in a Free Fall, I spend most of my energy on just getting by.

But motivation and energy in this case are both derivatives of the meanings and values I see in the world. In one of these states I find great value in what I’m doing and in what I’m hoping to achieve. In the other, I’m not seeing any value in anything at all. The world around me might not change at all during these few months, but my interpretations of it and the stories I create in my head are vastly different, and so I end up in completely different places. Looking back, it often feels like I’m watching an entirely different person.

When I’m at the Peak, I find it hard to empathise with the past me in the Free Fall. Why are you so pathetic? Life is so beautiful, and there are so many treasures to be discovered. Just stop whining, get your lazy ass up, and do something at last.

When I’m in the Free Fall, I find the past me at the Peak delusional. So you thought you just figured out your life’s purpose? How cute and adorable of you. Now tell me why exactly I should care about this at all.

Most people stay away from the Free Fall… most of the time

You might be wondering, what must be wrong with someone who regularly enters such miserable state? Isn’t this some weird case of bipolar disease? Most people somehow manage to avoid sliding into nihilism and despair every quarter even if they have some doubts? But when you think about it, crisis of meaning in general is a relatively new thing. Medieval peasants didn’t have doubts about how their lives have unfolded when they entered their forties. You can’t question your life choices unless you think that you had a choice.

For the most of the history everyone you might have known shared the same set of meanings. Whatever happened: death, war, famine, heartbreak, or draught, people knew what that meant and what should happen next. They shared the same myths about why things are a certain way, the kind of stories that reintroduced order into chaotic world. The myth would tell you what you should do and why and no one would even think about questioning it. Even though life at that time might have been short and cruel, everyone knew their place in the world, and everything made sense.

This degree of certainty is impossible to achieve in the modern world. Knowing there are different cultures that ascribe different meanings to the same thing is already enough to destroy that precious innocence. It is still possible however to avoid sliding into doubt and outright meaninglessness, as long a large enough group of people believes in the same thing as you do.

The most powerful meaning is the one you share with others

When everyone around you shares the same goals, values, and motives, it’s easy to remain certain that yours is the One True Way. Every believer reinforces the belief of everyone else. There’s so many people who do the same thing, they can’t all possibly be wrong, can they?

You may think you’re too rational to subscribe to such bullshit, but the entire modern world is built on clouds of shared fiction. There’s nothing on the level of atoms and quarks that would suggest the existence of a German nation, United States dollar, Toyota, or Real Madrid. Yet we all think and behave as if such entities exist, had power or agency and could impact the real world, and this has real-world consequences, as long as there are enough people willing to play the game. If everyone on Earth suddenly stops believing in the power of the United States dollar, all these green pieces of paper will be completely worthless. Just ask anyone in a country tormented by hyperinflation. You can exchange the dollar for a goddess of harvest, and the mechanism is not going to change that much.

Building on a shared fiction is what people did for the most of history. Every village and tribe shared their own set of fictions that explained what was life and what it all meant. Very few people had a chance to mingle with entirely different cultures that believed in a different set of fictions than their own. It all worked pretty well until some 200 years when the modern, scientific paradigm introduced competition to traditional myths. Nietzsche was the first one to understand the consequence. If there’s no eternal order that governs the world, you can’t ever be certain of anything anymore. Beneath all your cherished beliefs, there is a vast endless abyss lurking. And everyone who disagrees with you is now going to remind you of it.

You can only remain at the Peak while you’re certain

And nothing undermines certainty like seeing another group of true believers, equally certain that they follow the One True Way. Their mere existence is a proof that at least one of you is mistaken, that it’s possible to be absolutely certain and mistaken at the same time. True believers in a competing fiction are an existential threat. If you listen to them long enough, you may suddenly notice that Oh-my-globe, our entire castle is floating in the air, and so does the other, and there’s an infinite abyss below, and we’re all going to fall down, and how can we be sure of what is right or wrong anymore?

Just kidding, this is not what usually happens. People will double down on their efforts to defend their precious castle, whatever it takes. We’re hardwired for certainty, and we’re willing to go to war to defend it. If you’re fighting a war where the meaning of your whole life is at stake, it’s not enough that you win it. Only completely destroying the opponent will satisfy your need for certainty.

Luckily, two world wars of the 20th century discouraged most people from trying to destroy the other side physically. Now it is enough that we destroy their worldview alone. Thanks to the internet now everyone can see their most cherished beliefs and values constantly undermined in the most outrageous ways possible, and has the opportunity to repay with the same. Everybody feels like they need to protect their precious meaning all of the time, or their whole world is going to collapse.

There’s no winning in this war, as much as we keep trying. No matter how hard you fight, true believers on the other side will only push back. The only way out is to accept that there is a vast empty abyss beneath your system of meaning, look it directly in the eye, and hear what it has to tell you.

There can be no certainty in the modern world. But we can still find meaning and value regardless.

Meaning-making is like building castles in clouds

You can’t hold onto one forever, hoping it will never change. It’s guaranteed that the cloud will move, shapeshift, and dissolve, usually faster than you might expect. All the elaborate constructions you’ve built there out of crystal and glass might crumble into pieces in a blink.

We’ve evolved for certainty, so it’s only natural to hope that you can stay at the Peak forever. If only we can find a solid, trustworthy rock, we’ll build a reliable fortress there and finally settle down. But then you realize this solid piece of rock is just a condensed lump of interstellar clouds floating free across vast infinite space. Lest it crash into another lump of this kind, and they’ll both dissolve into dust again.

You can avoid the Crisis for a very long time if you’re surrounded by a large group of people holding onto the same piece of rock. You can be all so absorbed by the world you created together that no one will ever notice it’s floating above an infinite abyss. There might be huge elaborate fortresses to hide in, and games to play within them, and games within the games. It all feels very real, and important, and meaningful, until you dare to venture out on your own and realize the whole structure doesn’t have any support from below.

Few people chose to do that, and there’s no wonder why. Sliding into a Free Fall is pretty unpleasant and disorienting. For a while nothing is going to make any sense. You might feel as if you’ll never be able to hope or trust again. You might not see any point in getting out of bed at all. A Free Fall doesn’t last very long, but when you’re in it, it feels like it will last forever.

But there’s not many alternatives to embracing uncertainty. To remain certain you’d either need to destroy whatever competing myths, values, and beliefs other people have built on a different cloud, or run away far enough so that they disappear from your sight. Even if you’re ready to kill millions of people you’re not going to succeed in the first, and there’s nowhere to run from conflicting opinions anymore since we have internet. For better or worse, we must learn to embrace the abyss and to deal with it.

You’ll be better off if you experience a Crisis every once in a while

Staying at the Peak for too long does make you delusional. Your whole castle may be built on very questionable claims, and iterating upon them will only get you loster and loster. You may end up like the people who keep watching one Flat Earth video after another, with each new one reinforcing their certainty that what they believe is true. Even if you consider yourself much more rational than the Flat Earth people, history teaches us that nearly everything we used to believe about the world turned out to be false in the end. It’s delusional to think you have it all figured by now and none of the things you believe in will prove untrue at some point.

Only when a Crisis shows you that there’s no solid ground under the castle you’ve built, there’s a possibility to reevaluate your assumptions. As unpleasant and hopeless a Free Fall can feel, it’s your only chance to look dispassionately at your goals, values, and meanings, and compare them with the alternatives. This is your only chance to combine all you have learned and build something new. A Free Fall feels like it will last forever, but sooner or later a new Hope emerges, with new goals and meanings that will keep you going.

You might think there’s no point in building on a cloud

If you can’t be sure that what you do is right, why bother at all? If it’s all going to collapse, why should I even start? If there’s no ultimate purpose in it, why should I care?

But given a choice between this and nothing, it’s better to choose something. For the lack of better arguments, it’s more interesting and fun. Even though you may think it’s pointless and ridiculous to create an entirely made-up castle on an entirely made-up cloud, it won’t be pointless and ridiculous once you’re already doing it. You might have fun doing it. You might face some challenges. You might learn something new.

It’s easy to stay motivated if you believe in your mission beyond any doubt. It’s much harder to keep going if you know you might soon change your mind. But as soon as you accept it, you’re free to leave the guarded fortresses of shared narratives and check out what’s beyond them. If it’s all going to crumble, you might as well try and built something new on your own. If no one is getting out of this alive anyway, you can turn this whole serious business into a playful dance. “Everything is arbitrary and therefore meaningless” turns into “Everything is arbitrary so I am free to explore”.

We do everything to avoid a Free Fall because we fear that it will end with a crash. But you can’t crash while falling unless there is some solid ground beneath. Otherwise you’ll just stay in a Free Fall until another squishy cloud of Hope grasps your attention. Even if there’s no solid ground beneath your feet, some things might be still worth doing just for their own sake.

Meaning is a cycle, but we don’t go back where we started

There’s one thing I got wrong in the diagram above. The meaning-making loop is not a perfect circle. It’s a spiral. With each iteration you’re learning something new that helps you build better beliefs, that in turn are going to need wiser questions to undermine them. Even though it might feel like running in circles, there’s progress in this.

If you actively seek to undermine your systems of meaning, the highs will no longer be as high and the lows won’t be that low. You’ve invested less of your resources in each particular castle, and you have less to lose if you let go of it. It’s no longer such a big part of your identity.

A Crisis only feels devastating if you think it will kill you. Once you get used to it, it becomes a mildly unpleasant vehicle for growth.

2 responses to “How to build a castle in clouds – nihilism, existential crisis, and the cycle of meaning”

  1. I probably would have needed to go through many more cycles to be able to learn about what you are saying and to be able to write about it like you did. But looking back you are right. My current life, which is heavily invested in building my website, seems like the unquestionable course to follow. But so did all those other things at the time. I can now better appreciate those last poems you wrote about the ground below our feet.

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