Somewhat recently, Gordon Marino, a professor of philosophy and director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College, authored a piece for The NY Times on Søren Kierkegaard’s experience with anxiety entitled, “Kierkegaard, Danish Doctor of Dread.” The subject here being a man who once described his pervasive dread in the following terms:
“All existence makes me anxious, from the smallest fly to the mysteries of the Incarnation; the whole thing is inexplicable, I most of all; to me all existence is infected, I most of all. My distress is enormous, boundless; no one knows it except God in heaven, and he will not console me….”
And then some of SK’s most well-known words on the subject:
“Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eyes as in the abyss . . . Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”
Unlike some philosophers who understood anxiety to be a crippling emotion that is antithetical to reason and logic, Kierkegaard considered worry a universal trait. Rather than merely a nuisance to the mind, anxiety holds the secret to our innate longing for something greater than ourselves. In a sense, Kierkegaard thought that if we could understand our anxiety more, we would come to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human as well. Could pain, instead of being a means to an end, be an end in and of itself? In that light, it makes sense that Kierkegaard, according to Marino, wrote with the “aim of evoking [anxiety]”, maintaining that our anxiety is ultimately the product of a fear of loneliness:
Deep within every human being there still lives the anxiety over the possibility of being alone in the world, forgotten by God, overlooked among the millions and millions in this enormous household. A person keeps this anxiety at a distance by looking at the many round about who are related to him as kin and friends, but the anxiety is still there.
With the world population reaching seven billion and flesh-and-blood connections becoming increasingly obsolete in the face of social media, we find ourselves adrift. It is no coincidence that reported levels of anxiety have skyrocketed. How can we connect with others, let alone with the Father, in 140 characters or less?
Oddly enough, our fear of loneliness causes us to do things that only compound our alienation and accompanying anxiety: When in doubt, play the comparison game. We compare ourselves to others hoping that by affirming our “goodness” in the face of the crowd’s “badness”, we are vindicated, worthy of love, and, of course, surrounded by adoring friends. Facebook is simply the latest and most convenient forum/medium for this universal urge. Unfortunately, it only works for awhile until we get back on the wheel once again, only for spin it to nowhere, as a Stanford University psychology study recently found out.
For Kierkegaard, there had to be another way. Rather than let this quandary weigh us down any further, Kierkegaard, through the medium of Marino, offers a different suggestion: let your anxiety be your guide. Given where he was coming from–his deep Christian faith–perhaps this is part of what it means to take up our cross daily:
In the age of Big Pharma, we have, of course come to medicalize such thoughts — not to mention just about every other whim and pang. When I once confided with a physician friend that one of my children seemed to overheat with anxiety around tests, he smiled kindly and literally assured, “No need to worry about that, we have a cure for anxiety today.” On current reckoning, anxiety is a symptom, a problem, but Kierkegaard insists, “Only a prosaic stupidity maintains that this (anxiety) is a disorganization.” And again, if a “speaker maintains that the great thing about him is that he has never been in anxiety, I will gladly provide him with my explanation: that is because he is very spiritless. ”
Kierkegaard understood that anxiety can ignite all kinds of transgressions and maladaptive behaviors — drinking, carousing, obsessions with work, you name it. We will do most anything to steady ourselves from the dizzying feeling that can take almost anything as its object. However, Kierkegaard also believed that, “Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.”
In his “Works of Love,” Kierkegaard remarks that all talk about the spirit has to be metaphorical. Sometimes anxiety is cast as a teacher, and at others, a form of surgery. The prescription in “The Concept of Anxiety” and other texts is that if we can, as the Buddhists say, “stay with the feeling” of anxiety, it will spirit away our finite concerns and educate us as to who we really are, “Then the assaults of anxiety, even though they be terrifying, will not be such that he flees from them.” According to Kierkegaard’s analysis, anxiety like nothing else brings home the lesson that I cannot look to others, to the crowd, when I want to measure my progress in becoming a full human being.