On Superbowl Sunday, I tore off my shirt and ran on my friend’s back porch screaming with joy. This was because the Kansas City Chiefs had won for the first time in half a century. But a friend’s son, who’d spent the entire game watching YouTube videos on his tablet, mocked my screams of joy with a flippant remark. And so I lifted him out of his seat with a great big hug and told him, “Stop being such a nihilist! Life’s better when you give a darn!” I then proceeded to run laps around the neighborhood, still with no shirt.
To be honest, I had not been a football fan for a long time. Not really a sports fan either, and certainly not a Chiefs fan. But I had recently begun watching football casually, since I enjoyed the community of it. And the more I watched, the more I rooted for one team or another. This was usually arbitrary, and I didn’t care all that much who won or lost. I didn’t want to surrender my emotions to some game I had no control over. If the team I wanted to win lost, I’d be sad, but if they’d win I’d be happy. Instead, I thought it wiser to not care all that much, and found a comfortable middle that would never be disturbed.
What wisdom is there in this? Sure, if I had not cared all that much I wouldn’t have been pacing the room with stress in the third quarter or despairing into the couch and hoping the cushions would eat me in the fourth. I had no clue how I would cope. I had started to care, and really wanted the Chiefs to win but was watching those hopes turn to pain. And yet, I would never have experienced the shirt-ripping joy of victory had I not accepted the chance of that crushing defeat.
Chiefs fans are used to this feeling. The hope. The disappointment. But what if no one cared? What if we tempered half a century of failure with acceptance, protecting ourselves from disappointment by not caring? That would certainly save the people of Kansas City a lot of heartache, and I am not from Kansas City so I apologize for the audacity of even considering this, but it would deprive the game of its soul. Loss and victory are parts of life. And if you protect yourself from the pain of loss by never attempting victory, you will have lived a soulless life.
It took me a long time to figure this out. Pain avoidance is not the meaning of life. But neither is running around a neighborhood screaming and shirtless at all times. The highs and lows of life shape our existence. I’m not saying we should seek out inherently painful experiences, like being a Dodgers fan, but we should accept risks of emotional distress. Happiness is not a constant state. Neither is pain. But if we avoid pain, we avoid all chance at happiness. This requires us to care. It requires us to care if we compete in something and fail. It requires us to accept disappointment as an outcome, and embrace that pain alongside the joy of victory. Nihilism offers solace to those who want to avoid pain. But it separates you from the world, and not only prevents you from experiencing joy, but forbids you from changing this world you no longer care about. When we care, we have the ability to make things better. And when we share our joy with others, how does nihilism compare?
So go ahead and laugh in the faces of uncaring nihilists. Allow them their pain-free existence. Because we’ll be the ones shirtless in the streets, screaming our heads off and making the world better.