Nick Cave on the Antidote to Our Existential Helplessness
By Maria Popova
We live between the scale of gluons and the scale of galaxies, incapable of touching either, irrelevant to the fate of both. Forged of the dust of dying stars, we move through a universe of impartial laws with our dreams and desires, passionate pawns in the hands of grand-master chance, daily watching the world spin counter to our wishes, daily watching ourselves bend against our own will.
How, against the backdrop of this cosmic helplessness, can we muster the sense of agency necessary for conducting our human lives, much less fill them with the majesty of meaning?
That is what Nick Cave addresses in answering a fan’s lament about the devastating feeling of existential helplessness and impotence.
Unpacking the central creative image one of his songs, he writes:
The everyday human gesture is always a heartbeat away from the miraculous — [remember] that ultimately we make things happen through our actions, way beyond our understanding or intention; that our seemingly small ordinary human acts have untold consequences; that what we do in this world means something; that we are not nothing; and that our most quotidian human actions by their nature burst the seams of our intent and spill meaningfully and radically through time and space, changing everything… Our deeds, no matter how insignificant they may feel, are replete with meaning, and of vast consequence, and… they constantly impact upon the unfolding story of the world, whether we know it or not.
Turning directly to the man who had lost the sense of personal significance and power, he adds:
Rather than feel impotent and useless, you must come to terms with the fact that as a human being you are infinitely powerful, and take responsibility for this tremendous power. Even our smallest actions have potential for great change, positively or negatively, and the way in which we all conduct ourselves within the world means something. You are anything but impotent, you are, in fact, exquisitely and frighteningly dynamic, as are we all, and with all respect you have an obligation to stand up and take responsibility for that potential. It is your most ordinary and urgent duty.
In Faith, Hope and Carnage — one of my favorite books of 2022 — Cave illustrates this potency of the subtle acts with one such “small but monumental gesture” extended by a near-stranger with seemingly very small locus of power in the world, yet one who made an immense difference in his life in the wake of grieving his son:
There’s a vegetarian takeaway place in Brighton called Infinity, where I would eat sometimes. I went there the first time I’d gone out in public after Arthur had died. There was a woman who worked there and I was always friendly with her, just the normal pleasantries, but I liked her. I was standing in the queue and she asked me what I wanted and it felt a little strange, because there was no acknowledgement of anything. She treated me like anyone else, matter-of-factly, professionally. She gave me my food and I gave her the money… As she gave me back my change, she squeezed my hand. Purposefully.
It was such a quiet act of kindness. The simplest and most articulate of gestures, but, at the same time, it meant more than all that anybody had tried to tell me… because of the failure of language in the face of catastrophe. She wished the best for me, in that moment. There was something truly moving to me about that simple, wordless act of compassion… I’ll never forget that. In difficult times I often go back to that feeling she gave me. Human beings are remarkable, really. Such nuanced, subtle creatures.
Complement with E.B. White’s wonderful answer to a man who had lost faith in humanity, Erich Fromm’s antidote to helplessness and disorientation, and Adrienne Rich’s magnificent poem “Power,” then revisit Nick Cave on creative work as living amends, the relationship between vulnerability and freedom, and the real meaning and muscle of hope.
Published December 29, 2022