You bring up the word in mixed company and most people simply laugh. For good reason, I guess--this scene rocks.
"We believe in nothing!" is probably the phrase that gets quoted the most. If not that, then people use the word in a negative context, to denote a life without meaning. Nihilists are suicidal types, mopey people who loiter around in graveyards, who wouldn't know a life worth living if it grabbed them by the ears and gave their thought-boxes a hefty shake. They believe in nothing, that everything is worthless. That view couldn't be more wrong.
At its heart, nihilism is something of a minimalist movement. The thought that nothing exists but that we make it so is a powerful one.
It assumes our life and minds are a closet full of stuff and we are free, if we know that we can, to sort through all this garbage and give it a good shaking out every once in a while. Among other things, of course. It's hard to reduce a school of thought to just one sentence.
Way back when, when I was a wee sprog, fresh out of high school and convinced I knew everything, I took a college course in Russian literature. It may have also been history. It's been a while and I forget. I digress, however. The topic of nihilists came up, because they are a thing in Russian history, particularly in the late 19th century.
The professor quoted one of them, to the effect of "If you see a thing, lash out to your left, lash out to your right. If it still stands, it has value and you must keep it."
At the time, I took that as a fairly frightening quote, a thing a terrorist might say. I thought it was a dreadfully combative way to approach life, destroying things and only keeping their shattered remnants. These nihilists, I thought, must be horrible people.
After twenty years, it's something I take to heart.
I constantly test things in my life, see whether they stand up to a simple battery of questions: does this add value to my life? Does it align with my goals? Does it help make me the person I hope I actually am when I look at myself in the mirror? Does it actually make me happy?
And when I say "things" I mean things in a very broad context. That extra stapler you have, your spare television, your collection of badger-themed saltshakers. Cars and jet skis, spare shoes and garden gnomes, sure. But it's more than that: habits, things you do, people you know, your job and your goals, the way you treat other people in all the minutia of your life. Everything.
It's amazing just how much of reality is constructed. Yes, I know that sounds like bullshit, you can't reconstruct, say, your hand getting lopped off in a horrible industrial accident. You can, however, accept that there are such things as toxic influences and take steps to minimize them and there are good things you can do that you can take the time to nurture and to support.
It's an interesting exercise to pare down your life. You pull out your flensing knife and you slice away cruft. The big things at first: that friend who only hangs out with you because they want a binge-drinking partner. That pile of sweaters in a box in your closet which you never wear. You get rid of that habit you have of going out to eat on Thursday night which you no longer take pleasure in. You sell off a bunch of books you never read anymore.
You go to bed. You wake up refreshed, more than ever, because you realize it was all baggage. You pull out the knife again. You dig into your closet and you find a toaster, which against all accountability and common sense, you've kept there even though you have a decent toaster already and don't actually need a backup one. You donate it. You go to work, realize that you fill your mornings with busy-work you can automate or delegate. You've only been doing it to avoid the real work which you find more fulfilling but you never seem to find the time to dive into.
You slice again. The more you pare away, the more you strike to see whether or not it stands, the more you find out about who you actually are.
Minimalism and, by extension, nihilism is more about efficiency than destruction.
You've only got so much time in your life. You have, if you're thirty years old, say, a finite number of heart beats before your ticker stops and you expire. If you live to be eighty and have an average heart beat rate of 60 bpm, this comes out to roughly 1,576,800,000 heart beats. If you spend one of them doing something, you should be careful it's something that aligns with every one of your goals--whether that's to be a successful writer, or a better person, a better parent, whatever. Time is the only thing in life you cannot get back.
When you're a nihilist, you're constantly reinventing yourself, making sure you're not chaining yourself down with useless shit which clouds the waters and prevents you from seeing the things that matter. So, yeah, I think it gets a bad rap. Also, I really like marmots.