It seems reasonably accepted that a person can like something or dislike something, but is it possible in a most sincere, fundamental way, to nothing something?
To explore this question, we first must understand what it would mean to nothing something – assuming such an action were possible.
At it’s core, nothing-ing something is an active response – just as it requires at least some level of attention to like or dislike something. You can’t nothing something purely by virtue of being unaware of it; you have to observe, process, and actively elect to respond with nothingness.
Perhaps this seems like the worst kind of egoism – to declare your position nothing is to claim yourself free from bias and partiality.
But I would be inclined to take a different view – nothing-ing is rather an expression of humility. It is the act of observing, of accepting an external object as a thing which exists in the world, and of recognizing one’s own inability to sit in judgement of that thing.
In Camus’ An Absurd Reasoning, he ties the state of nothing-ing to the absurd – that distinctive existential Nirvana:
In certain situations, replying “nothing” when asked what one is thinking about may be pretense in a man. Those who are loved are well aware of this. But if that reply is sincere, if it symbolizes that odd state of the soul in which the void becomes eloquent, in which the chain of daily gestures is broken, in which the heart vainly seeks the link that will connect it again, then it is as the first sign of absurdity.
Thus the act of nothing-ing, if genuinely achieved, is a critical step towards embracing the absurd. Camus goes on to clarify what he means by the absurd:
I said that the world is absurd, but I was too hasty. This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment is it all that links them together…This is all I can discern clearly in this measureless universe where my adventure takes place.
Existentialist enlightenment, then, comes from recognizing one’s own wild longing for clarity in an unreasonable universe – and reconciling the two by nothing-ing; by being comfortable with that absurd reality.
But perhaps it is not possible to nothing.
The Tao Te Ching argues:
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.
This chapter seems to imply that nothing-ing may be a valuable route to avoid the ugly and bad – with the worthy sacrifice of the beautiful and good. Yet the seeming contradictions leave one wondering if such a state – even if desirable – is truly attainable.
Learn to act without doing anything, and the ability to nothing is yours.
While the philosophy of Lao Tzu in many ways seems similar to Camus, the above passage perhaps stands in contrast from the latter’s words in The Myth of Sisyphus: There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.
Rather than avoiding differentiating between good and bad, Camus would have us embrace them both.
I’m not sure, however, the extent to which these ideas conflict. Embracing the absurd means accepting the good and the bad, accepting that – despite our longing otherwise – the world is not reasonable.
Lao Tzu only argues for the necessity of these opposites; that appreciating beauty is the creating of ugly, and we should therefore not be too quick to judge which opposite is good and which opposite bad.
But his words could easily be interpreted as in line with the later thinking of Camus. Perhaps nothing-ing is not the act of responding without bias, indeed it is not a neutral action at all. It is rather the act of appreciating things as they are; beautiful or ugly, good or bad. It is all of it meaningless, all of it absurd.
There is nothing left but – nothing.