June 2017

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Nihilism is derived from the Latin nihil, meaning nothing. The Oxford Dictionary refers to it as such an absence of moral and religious principles that life has no meaning. In philosophy, it refers to the idea that nothing in the world has a real existence. Albert Camus referred to nihilism as the biggest problem of the 20th century – which in its latter phases gave birth to the Internet and virtual reality. The root nihil is also found in the word annihilate, which means to destroy everything.

The pervasive nihilism that seems to now define Trinidadian life found its expression in the runaway Carnival hit song, “Full Extreme.”

Individuals who experience major depression frequently have nihilistic beliefs that are part of their condition. They feel empty, devoid of meaning and therefore, of hope, and are consequently apathetic and completely demotivated.

How do we overcome this negation?

“Full Extreme” suggests that hedonism or partying to the fullest is one way. “We jamming still,” while everything burns down, is an indictment of our inability to face and constructively overcome the negation that our social and structural problems invoke. It also implicitly suggests that the institutions should indeed be destroyed. If all we can do is jam then the capacity to reconstruct or even prevent the complete destruction of our own lives becomes compromised by our philosophy that declares “we doh business.”

The lack of trust in our institutions and the abiding sense that most, if not all of them, cannot deliver what is needed beyond a basic standard to lift the society out of its despair, may be the rationale that lies behind our taste for destruction. Rules and regulations are only useful if they serve our narrow and self-seeking ends.

The repeated expectation of corruption and the lack of accountability at every level have stymied our capacity to believe we can deal with the many outward manifestations of these problems. The sense that our safety – individual and collective – is under siege from criminal elements adds to a sense of hopelessness and indeed, helplessness. We know from neuroscience that when there is a lack of safety, it generates a fear/rage response which alternates with anxiety and which may be another explanation for our anger and aggression.

Nihilism can be contagious and generational and is thought to have informed another great modern trend: narcissism or preoccupation with self. This in turn has led to another negative manifestation, which is the demise of interpersonal relationships: the very medium through which humans derive meaning to challenge the emptiness that might be generated by interactions with the wider world.

The absence of meaning lends itself to an absence of trust and here the individual is mirroring the social, or is it the social being constructed by the individual? The social outcome we face here is the growth of interpersonal violence now extending itself publicly all around us, particularly among the younger age groups in the society.

This suggests that there are fundamental problems with our initial social relationships. As Erik Erikson pointed out, the essential struggle of the first year of life is the battle between trust and mistrust. If fundamental relationships are struggling to survive, then everything else will struggle to survive, much less to thrive.

Immediate gratification and shallow hedonism are likely reactions to this combination of conditions which in turn begs the question: What is the appropriate response to stress and adversity?

The question is very important because it will determine how well we answer the even more critical question: How do we step away from the brink of collapse and social deterioration?

In “Full Extreme” some have seen a capacity to celebrate and enjoy our lives in spite of whatever problems we might be facing, so that we are “jamming still” regardless.

This might be a kind of resilience, if we accept that construction.

However, celebration can only be liberating if it occurs in an atmosphere of security, support and hope. Resilience is a testament to hope that in spite of the gravity of our current experience, we can overcome and do better so that hope can be embraced and become a new reality.

But hope for what and in what?

What kind of society do we want to create?

This is our first challenge. Then there is the challenge of rebuilding the social fabric of our communities, which is a major pillar in the support that helps beleaguered individuals survive their difficult circumstances.

Is there a need for a return of a community in spirit, value and actions that can inform that process so the country can really become all inclusive?

A belief in oneself and in the people around you is, by extension, a belief in the national project that you become an integral part of as long as your commitment to that belief extends beyond self. Put another way, salvation of self is only possible though salvation of the community that you truly believe you belong to, and which reciprocates your commitment with a sense of mutual benefit. The neighbourhoods and active communities ultimately define and inform the national identity.

We must invest in encouraging people to learn about themselves and therefore to believe in themselves and the inextricable links that bind them together as a people so that the strength that comes from sharing life rather than competing for its spoils will resonate in actions that will allow our society to grow rather than burn down.

Gerard Hutchinson is a Professor of Psychiatry and Unit Head in Psychology at the Faculty of Medical Sciences, UWI St. Augustine.