I have become old enough to have the regular and delightful experience of young women asking me important questions.
Last week a 23-year-old woman asked me if she should get an MFA. I asked her if she would have to pay for it. She said no, because she wouldn’t go if she didn’t get funded. I said if she didn’t have to pay for it, sure, she could go, but she could also not go, and that would also be fine.
“I don’t know what else to tell you,” I texted. (This was all texts.) “Being a writer is such an incredibly fucked-up profession. It’s not like you can make a good choice or a bad choice about it. I mean, the whole thing is complete bullshit.” I sent this.
Five minutes later, feeling like the first text was bad, and not having heard from her, I wrote a new one: “I don’t mean ‘writing’ is bullshit, I mean, it can be, and even then, it is . . .” I faltered. What was it? I came up with “it is ‘something to do’ LOL.”
I sent this, and then felt the need to write one more text, which began helpfully, maybe, but then became unhelpful: “Also, please don’t think I think you’re not a good writer, and this bullshit theme has to do with that, because you are good, and also, who cares what I think, and not that you asked? I just mean that one cannot really control what is or what isn’t a good decision when being a writer isn’t a particularly good decision in and of itself, though, of course, it isn’t perhaps any worse than the decision to be a lawyer or a nurse or, for that matter, a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker, or, for that matter, a person with any job, because, it just doesn’t really matter, probably, any of it?”
She didn’t write back and I walked away feeling tender feelings for her (poor thing) and alternately hostile and tender feelings for myself, which began with Why did you say that, you have no business (interesting choice of phrase) seeding the world with your negativity and you’re probably just jealous of her for being young, and ended with, She asked a question and you answered it, you’re a wonderful and honest guide!
A few days later I told another young woman, also 23, this story. She laughed and said last year she’d asked a mentor-type figure if she should take a newspaper job out west. “You could,” the woman had said. “Or, you could not. It really doesn’t matter.”
“I couldn’t figure out if she meant ‘It doesn’t matter’ like ‘It won’t make a difference in terms of your writing career’ or ‘It doesn’t matter because nothing actually matters, period.’ ”
“Did you ask her?”
“No,” she said. “I got the feeling it didn’t really matter.”
We had a good laugh over this. I could end here and say something like “What matters during hard times is good laughs with people we love / people we have known for a little while who seem pretty cool,” but sorry, that would be avoiding what I wish to discuss, which in case you’ve forgotten is conveniently located in the title of this essay.
My friend did go out west and the job was awful. She moved back east, which she does not regret, though she had to admit she could also just have stayed, and then eventually that would have led somewhere too, or, for that matter, she could have also just quit sooner.
“Lately when my friends ask me for advice I keep telling them it doesn’t matter what they do,” she said.
“Do they ask you if you mean specifically, like, about their question, or in general?”
“Oh no,” she said. “It would never occur to them to think that. Like they can’t even believe I’m telling them that their life choices with their careers or love life aren’t a big deal.” She told me about this guy she once had a crush on who told her he wanted to be “the best at finance” but had a big conflict. “He looked so serious, I thought he was going to cry, and then he took a deep breath and told me, ‘I want to be the best at finance but if I do that, I’m not sure I can also be the best at skiing.’ ”
We agreed that in a world where nothing mattered this only mattered a very small amount but at least his comment rendered him a person she no longer wished to have sex with and if there’s one thing I believe matters it’s not sleeping with people trying to choose between finance and skiing.
The idea that nothing matters is a large family with many warring factions. John Herrman, who now writes about technology for the New York Times, wrote a BuzzFeed post in 2012 about nothing mattering, focused on the idea that space is really big. I would classify this as Stoned Nothing Matters.
Then, there’s what so many people think nihilism is: Nothing matters, fuck everything, let’s get wasted and shoot frogs.
Or, let’s never get wasted and eat McDonald’s. Trump has said nothing matters at least twice. Once was in 2004, as a guest on Larry King. When asked how he handled stress, he said:
“I try and tell myself it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. If you tell yourself it doesn’t matter—like you do shows, you do this, you do that, and then you have earthquakes in India where 400,000 people get killed. Honestly, it doesn’t matter.”
More recently, and thus more dismayingly, when Lesley Stahl asked Trump to reflect on his mocking of Christine Blasey Ford, he said, “It doesn’t matter. We won.”
A few days later I called my friend. “I am driving through a swamp which were it not for climate change would be frozen,” I told her. “And the smell of the mud is very strong and spring-like, and should be a nice smell, but in the context of winter, it is not. I was already having an extremely ‘nothing matters’ kind of day and now it has gotten worse.”
“Oh,” she said, “I was having one of those, and then, I started to feel like it was kind of fun. Do you know what I mean?”
“Oh yeah, of course,” I said. “I think that’s the only sort of fun I’ve had for years.”
We were quiet for a second and I said, “Are you going to like—have kids?”
“I don’t know!” she exclaimed, as if she’d just been thinking about it. “I mean, it seems sad to just think it’s pointless to reproduce.”
Keep in mind, I usually am somewhat annoyed when a woman tells me she’s having a baby. Like, “Jesus, you too?” But I felt at that moment I wanted my friend to go and have several right away, just as a gesture of aggressive optimism.
“That’s depressing,” she said when I suggested this course of action. “I mean the idea of procreating as a way of like trying to prove that you believe in mankind.”
“But is the alternative worse?”
“Oh, I think we know the answer to that!” she said. “Anyway, I feel like ‘nothing matters’ is fun, kind of like being on drugs.”
“Sure,” I said. “But the problem with ‘Nothing matters, this is so fun’ is that it very quickly slips into ‘Nothing matters, this is awful.’ ”
“Oh no!” she said. “I was really hoping I’d arrived at a new way of being.”
“Well you have!” I said. “But it’s going to go away, and come back, etc.”
“Okay,” she said. “So that’s just like normal life. It’s like going back and forth between being happy or sad, except what changes your mood is whether you find that the fact that nothing matters depressing, or kind of freeing! That’s actually kind of helpful, isn’t it? I mean, it’s really not that bad is it?”
I said I thought she should enjoy being in a good mood for as long as it lasted.
A week later the MFA woman wrote me back: “Thanks for giving me an honest answer. It’s helped me to reorient myself. I think most adults feel they’re contractually obligated to tell me everything is going to be OK.”
“Not me, I’m a free agent,” I wrote back.
“Hahaha,” she said. “Amazing. I want to be a free agent.”
“You already are.”
“Oh, is that good?”
I could have written no or yes. I wrote, “Yes!”