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THE FLOODGATES OF NIHILISM

Edward Trefts

 

An open window invited nihilism to peer inside the classroom.
     Inside the classroom, Donna could feel her children. They were urging and urging her on. As the students leaned forward, staring expectantly, she told the class to draw something they were thankful for.
     Taking an empty seat in the back of the room, nihilism observed that most students were now hard at work, filling sheets of notebook paper with thoughts and ideas. The five-year-old closest to nihilism was filling up his page: The boy's name was Tommy Tighe.
     But how little, how little, these children had to be thankful for, thought Donna. Take little Tommy. She knew that one day he would be dead forever. It was inevitable. But before he died, she would finally teach him how to flush the toilet.
     Donna was taken aback with the picture Tommy Tighe handed in...a simple childishly drawn hand.
     But whose hand?
     "I think it must be the hand of God that brings us food," said one child. "A farmer," said another. "Because he grows the turkeys." Finally when the others were at work, the teacher bent over Tommy's desk and asked whose hand it was.  
     "It's the black hand of nihilism," the boy mumbled.
     She recalled that at recess nihilism would take Tommy, a scrubby forlorn child, by the hand. And it didn't do that with the other children. This small gesture must have meant so much to him.

Donna took a part time job as a financial assistant, working the late evenings. At the office, she poured herself a cup of coffee. She looked at the revenues. On the other side of the earth, nihilists rising like they were several thousand moons. She typed some of the report, and it was pretty good. The bosses would like the words, probably. The nihilists became a dark cloud, and they looked down at the dry rock of the valley: Soon it would be flooded. Bombarded with watery nihilism. She aggressively clicked a button.     

The classroom observer introduced himself to Donna's students: "My job is to make classroom visitations and encourage implementation." The classroom observer did not tell them he could also read their thoughts.
     He walked down the row, glancing at their student papers. He also continued to read their thoughts. Rarely, in his observations, did the children show imagination or taste, with their thoughts being about say, Dante Alighieri or a naked statue, or a Roth IRA. Mostly the children only had mundane thoughts about the mundane world: The dull colors of the bulletin board, the creaking in the movements of the wooden desks, the cold feeling of their metallic chairs. Finally, there was the matter of the strange, tortured man looking over their shoulders. The classroom observer exited out of them.
     Donna brought out the mock toilet from behind her desk. She pushed down on the flapper and remembered the transformative teacher played by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. Donna gently coughed, and the classroom observer did not think he could leave. He closed his eyes and burrowed deeper.
     After learning how to flush the toilet, Tommy's emotional health worsened sharply. He went from sad to very sad to sorrowful. The boy was no longer the same. He was like a smooth functioning toilet before, with all surfaces clean, perfect, but now he was something very different, an inferior toilet, much less good. The classroom observer heard Tommy think: "I am no longer the same." To make matters worse, that very same night, Tommy suffered a very acute case of appendicitis and died in his sleep.

Donna aggressively flushed the toilet at the office where she was now a financial magistrate. On the other side of the earth, the nihilists were standing around a dead man. They stacked slabs of granite onto a high, broad mound. The officer talked to her about the report: "This is the report?" "Yes." "Thanks for clarifying." "You're welcome." "Strange, tormented cheetahs live on the moon."
     There was the ghost of Tommy Tighe walking down the long corridor. He took over the job of the dead child who was fired. It was clear he was not over the hurt and pain and suffering and trauma of being a ghost. Tommy took a sip of whiskey.
     What a joke, thought Donna. In time, Tommy will become an alcoholic. He will turn into one of those pitiful child ghosts you see living inside tent cities. What a complete failure, she thought, what a totally wasted life.
     The classroom observer could hear Donna thinking from his bathtub. He sank deeper into the water. He was not in love with her. Didn't feel that strongly about her. But he never wanted to let her go. In thirteen years or so, he could stop eventually.
     One time she read a sentence with Shakespeare in it.

Fourteen years later, Donna took her son's hand and asked: "Billy, did you ever brood about what you wanted to be when you grew up? Did you ever dream and wish about what you would do with your life?"
     Her son was dying of terminal leukemia. Although her heart was filled with sadness, she also had a strong feeling of determination. Like any parent she wanted her son to grow up and fulfill his dreams.
     "Mommy," Billy said. "I want Jennie to die, and I think that the murder of Jennie is acceptable."
     Donna was horrified by what he said, but all the same she wanted her son's dreams to come true. Later that day she looked up Jennie's address in the white pages and went to her house in Phoenix, Arizona. There she explained her son's final wish and asked if it might be possible to run Jennie over with a fire engine.   
     Fireman Bob happened to be chasing a cat in the front yard. "Look," he said. "The fire department can do better than that. If you have Jennie ready at 7 o'clock in the morning, we'll set a house on fire and throw her inside."
     With those words, Billy smiled and closed his eyes for the last time.
     However, Jennie got quite upset. She looked straight into the fireman's eyes, pointed her finger, and said: "My little life is worth as much as anyone else's."
     "In fact," she said. "My life is infinitely precious!"
     On the other side of the earth, one of the nihilists in the clouds suddenly fell into the abyss, and as he was consumed by the nihilism he was supposed to unleash upon the world, he shouted: "Is my life not infinitely precious, too?"
     Then silence. About four seconds of it.
     "But everyone dies," said Fireman Bob. "One day I will die and the teacher will die and your parents will die, and before that, there were cavemen, and they died, and before that, there were the dinosaurs, and they all died."
     He then readied the fire hose just in case he needed to put Jennie down.
     Tears welled in Jennie's eyes. She was choked up. Her equilibrium had been shaken. She was totally thrown.
     And Donna, the teacher, was faced with an ethical decision. What should I do now? she thought. Should I attempt to give Jennie God, salvation, eternity before she dies? Or should I leave her with uncertainty and anxiety because I think that's more real?
     Should I try to make her into an existentialist, or should I try to make her feel better?        
     At which point tears came into Donna's eyes as she realized what a fool she had been to judge Tommy Tighe as a failure. He embraced the dark hand of nihilism, sure. But he died in kindergarten. And certainly, most of what you really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be, you learn in kindergarten: The Golden Rule and basic sanitation like how to flush the toilet. 
     Yes, it was still true. No matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is always better to hold hands and stick together and die in kindergarten.

 

 

 

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This piece appropriates a few stories from Chicken Soup for the Soul. The work also reflects my understanding of absurdism.