It’s raining and I am reading Kierkegaard. That’s a good combination, the gloomy weather and honest thoughts. As I sip my coffee and write, I do it amidst the bustle of children preparing for their day. My coffee has grown cold, but let me tell you I am just warming up!
I have sat among others in conversation about Søren Kierkegaard and his thinking, but like many other areas in my life I have let others’ interpretations suffice and he had very little impact.
This is all so ironic, considering that he put into words an ache inside me that I haven’t known how to express. This understanding didn’t become as real until I read him for myself! Like so many areas of life, I am discovering that I am unique. I have thoughts and ideas that are different, sometimes hugely different, from others. But my self-discovery has been so long in coming that it is more than a little embarrassing.
In An Introduction to Kierkegaard, it says: “Kierkegaard aims to strip you, the reader, naked at two in the morning, to sit you in front of a mirror and force you to think about your life.”
Rest assured I am fully dressed, and it’s daytime, but my soul feels echoes of relief at being understood, even as I am reading the words of someone writing 100 years ago! How I have anguished! Certainly that is how this blog came about and anyone who takes the time to read my poetry knows it is true of my poetry.
Kierkegaard demands self-examination in a way that makes me jump up and howl “Yes!” Not in self-absorption, or self-centeredness, but in a quest for maximum understanding, which makes so much sense to me! He confronts our innermost person, who is being lost in today’s (American) culture. Hear me out.
“They use their abilities, amass wealth, carry out worldly enterprises, make prudent calculations, etc. and perhaps are mentioned in history, but they are not themselves. In a spiritual sense they have no self, no self for whose sake they could venture everything.” (CUP 64-5)
This lack of being an individual leads to despair. Many never acknowledge this. Too often I do and feel like a total nutcase. In the daily, humdrum of life “We convince ourselves that life is ‘happy’, that there is meaning and purpose to our lives, when often this is not the case. We throw ourselves into activity of various kinds which is subconsciously designed to prevent us having to think deeply about ourselves at all.” (Introduction to Kierkegaard.)
He doesn’t consider despair a negative. Kierkegaard believed that the pain of despair can help us to seek something deeper, which comes before a person can take charge of their life, “beginning the long, painful, slow walk of becoming an individual.”
This, for me, is the most important point:
“In his ignorance of his own despair a person is furthest from being conscious of himself as spirit. But precisely this — not being conscious of oneself as spirit — is despair, that is to say spiritlessness . . . the despairer is in the same situation as the consumptive; he feels best, considers himself to be healthiest, can appear to others to be in the pink of condition, just when the illness is at its most critical.” (CUP 75)
Kierkegaard is challenging those of us who have the outward appearance of happiness, to slow down, to be still, to look at ourselves differently. Then perhaps we will see that it is a facade. This doesn’t come easily and for me it took a complete change of career paths from a really driven, accomplished Mission leader … striving, proving, achieving… to housfrau and mommy. Whoa did I have a crisis of purpose and fall flat on my face both physically and emotionally. A crisis in my soul. I was completely flattened by the fact that I had no understanding of my life’s greatest meaning. (And many Christians I know will now start flinching at this heretic thinking. Read on.)
When I was working I wasn’t told you’re doing too much, I was simply given more to do. The more I did, the more I was asked to do, until, when I left my job was split into three full-time jobs. Why is this important, because I had become a machine. When I was sad and confused about how to next spend my time and energies, I was given lists of activities and encouraged in to mommy-hood. Really I just simply wanted some space, to think about these bigger issues of purpose, a sabbatical of sorts. I now know that I would not have quit working if I could have sorted out these things, while procreating and all that entails. (I wonder how many women go through this?)
When I did go home, suddenly I fell into the despair of questioning my purpose and discovering the masks I had constructed, feeling the despair of the seemingly commonplace, everyday life I was now living. And so I began a long eight year path of becoming ruthlessly honest about what is true and false in my life.
Why do we seek the placid, safe and guarded sameness I have anguished? I questioned and lamented my superficiality and missed the safety of the pursuit of work. I was left with myself and I didn’t like it. We work, we eat, we exercise, we shop, we acquire things and experiences, we pursue a hobby, become good at certain skills, we seek knowledge of various kinds, we become addicted to good and bad things, if we are very lucky we love, and we create beautiful things … and yet, still, we find ourselves awake at 2 in the morning. The moment returns, or was it ever gone, and what then?
The greatest question is what does it mean to be human, not in some grand philosophical sense, but in how we choose to live and how to die. The word ‘philosophy’ means ‘love of wisdom.’ And wisdom my father always said can only be gained through experience. And I would add, thought.
For the first time in my life, with all pretense stripped away, I had an obligation to face my life and let wisdom begin to change the way lived. Otherwise, life is just passing the time having moments of meaning. I should be able to figure out how to live out my life with justice and truth, with meaning. My life can come to mean something more than what I do and create.
For Kierkegaard said “I also know that in Greece a thinker was not a stunted existing person who produced works of art, but he himself was an existing work of art.” (CUP 303)
What does it mean to say you love? What does it mean to be a self? As I was reading him for the first time I started to get excited. And if you are still with me after 1000+ words, I think you are excited as well!!!!! Kierkegaard argues that most people are not selves at all. Being an individual is difficult and it is something that few people attempt. Instead, we put ourselves together in such a way that we are acceptable to others. He calls it a copy. We put on a mask.
I had certainly worn a mask for most of my life and with the ending of my work, or my purpose, I fell into a desolate place, a sinkhole which was ultimately deep depression. It was like a loss of an arm it was so painful and it echoed on and on, I was lost .
And everyone continued to move through life as if it were nothing. I should be able to do this change of career, or purpose and not fall apart. So many other people do but for me it was my time of reckoning. And I am grateful for it now that I am on the other side of the raging river. I have crossed over and read with joy a description of what I went through. Sure, I’m just at the beginning of reading this great thinker, philosopher and theologin. But I’m psyched!