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Michael Meade, D.H.L.

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Occupy vs. Nihilism: All or Nothing at All

Posted: 12/15/11 10:39 AM ET

The Occupy movement may be an instinctive response, not just to the greatest disparity of wealth and power in the history of America, but also to the emptying out of institutions and loss of meaning at all levels of life. An underlying instinct to inhabit life more fully may be arising and taking root in different places for different reasons. The message of Occupy may be "all over the place" because the underlying message is about "place," about reclaiming and more fully inhabiting public places, about being more present to the critical issues in each place, and about taking one's own place in life more fully.

A movement whose time has come keeps moving and keeps changing; it morphs and alters itself because it represents underlying changes that are only beginning to surface. Although national in scope, each new occupation takes up local issues and takes on local style. As the movement moves it stirs a wide range of issues and injustices waiting just under the skin of the country; that is what "grass roots" means. Seeds are carried on the winds of change, take root in all kinds of places, and sprout up everywhere at once.

Campuses and courthouses, parks and banks become places of intentional occupation as an instinctive, embodied response to the hollowing out of local as well as national institutions takes shape. When Occupy appears on campuses the stunning emptiness and increasing meaninglessness of "higher education" as well as its outrageous cost is being highlighted.

When campus police appear as storm troopers ready to punish students for being more present and more engaged in their own education, the emptiness of the institutions themselves is being depicted. University means a place of universal learning, not a staging ground for mindless careers or a franchise site for the blind continuance of the "business of education."

When mini-Occupy sites appear at individual houses threatened with foreclosure and neighbors set aside typical disagreements in order to protect each other's homes, the roots of community are trying to resurface. Genuine grass roots movements can cross typical "party lines" and dissolve class distinctions as the deep-rooted connections between people and the underlying dreams of the country rise up from below. The difference and distance between those who inhabit the land and those who rule the nation become revealed. For, it is not simply that government has gotten too big, but that it has become so empty of meaning and devoid of the values that sustain common humanity.

Occupy can be an instinctive, collective response to the loss of meaning and spread of nihilism throughout the culture. The Latin word nihil means "nothing at all;" absence as opposed to a presence, emptiness instead of abundance, a lack of substance rather than something substantial. Nihilism refers to various "doctrines of negation" that tend to be reductionist, narrow-minded, and rejecting. The spread of nihilism is one way of understanding what is currently happening where reductionist ideas, single-issue politics, and fixed ideologies make politics, public discourse, and public institutions increasingly empty of substance and lacking in meaning.

It is not just that the "do nothing" Congress appears to be a replica of the old "know nothing party," but that it also represents an underlying negation of life, an unconscious nihilistic movement that threatens to drain meaning and justice from collective life. It is not simply that the debates between "those who would be king" lack genuine substance, but that the candidates aspire to so little and reject so much.

It is not just that those who desire to lead seem so ready to reduce elected office to simplistic tax pledges and the dull repetition of ideas that lack both substance and imagination. It is that they do it so willfully, so blindly, and with a bravado that surpasses egotism and seems intended to elevate narcissism to religious heights. The bankrupting of the system allows those who are most empty of substance to rise to the top most readily. When winning is the only goal, everyone loses.

When Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich appear as ego-twins trumpeting "big ideas" that are empty of true meaning, lacking in genuine intention, and devoid of actual political value, something is being said about the emptiness of both business and politics. Something is being said about the loss of statesmanship and absence of genuine ideas of governance, about the hopeless collapse of the complexities of life into the most common forms of commerce and self aggrandizement. In the end, economics alone can never solve the problems of economics.

The desire to punish the poor, blame the disadvantaged, and force children into hard labor arises from willful ignorance as well as blind arrogance. Notions of putting "poor kids" to work because they lack inner values is not just regressive and possibly racist; it is not simply ignorant and unfeeling; it is also another form of the doctrines of negation that attack the meaning of individual lives. Such hollow ideas may serve the narcissistic needs and short term interests of a few, but what begins as simple negation can end in nihilistic disaster as those with hollow ideas and hardened avoid the real work of reviving the heart of culture and tending to the soul of the country.

Nihilism also raises its reckless head in the coarse and dehumanizing idea that a corporation can be a person. No matter how many people "sell their souls to the corporation," the corporation can never become a person. The idea of elevating a common business form to human status does not just distort reality, it also diminishes humanity. Like any abstract entity, a corporation can readily dehumanize people because it has no soul and no real interest in individual life.

Such doctrines of negation are not "big ideas" as much as clever manipulations that occur when real ideas are absent. The issue is not just financial corruption on a wide scale, but also that people have "bought a bill of goods" that have no long-term backing and have forgotten the common good. The great crises and great movements of the world do not take place outside the human soul, but within the souls of those moved by the unseen forces of change.
At issue in all genuine movements is the suffering of the individual human soul and it is soul that is missing when no one can imagine ways out of the practical dilemmas of life.

The hidden meaning of Occupy may involve an instinctive response to the threat of nihilism and the rise of emptiness; it may be a collective attempt to find the heart and soul of America again. Not "occupy" as a single-minded political statement, but the soulful sense of occupying life in ways that return meaning and justice, truth and beauty to the lives of individuals and communities, to institutions and practices that are after all intended to serve the people. Occupy may be an instinctive vehicle for making life in its diverse and surprising forms more valuable and meaningful again.

The soul of a movement cannot be simply identified or be easily codified. Yet, soul is what brings people together and shapes new ways of being when the old ways have become mere rote or have hardened into fixed and unmovable attitudes. Soul is what gives any movement depth, what gives any action meaning, what gives each life substance, authenticity, and genuine meaning. The underlying notion of Occupy may be an inspiration to begin to occupy something, anything more fully before the spread of nihilistic attitudes and heartless policies leech all meaning from the land.

Occupy an idea, live with it, sleep with it, inhabit it until it becomes a kind of "gnosis," or genuine knowing. Occupy a place because you love it or because it needs loving attention or simply because you need a place to be. Find something that feels and smells authentic and occupy it fully in order to bring back life's natural state of diversity and abundance. In the midst of all the change, confusion, and chaos, occupy your own soul; for without soulful presence even momentous events can become hollow and be reduced to political in-fighting and the seeds of change can fail to take root.