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Fear and trembling in Copenhagen

27 Sep

kierkegaard

Anxiety can be fearfully isolating. At its worst it’s a form of madness, cutting us off from all the seemingly normal people around us. ‘Oh I’m not a worrier’ … ‘What me, worry?’ … ‘No worries’.  Badges of honour flaunted by the superficially well-adjusted.

Some of these jaunty souls may be only pretending. Some may be ‘well-dissemblers of their woes’, like the friends of the young nobleman Amintor in Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy. If so, they’d be doing everyone a favour if they occasionally came clean and admitted to the odd passing anxiety. ‘Would I knew it, for the rareness/Afflicts me now,’ the woebegone Amintor declares. It’s a cliché, but knowing we’re not alone can be enormously reassuring.

Confessing to anxiety might be good for the sufferer too, in more ways than one. Three years after the event, an acquaintance of mine who hails from Seattle still seems to feel the need to explain why he didn’t go home for his father’s funeral. ‘I’d seen him just a few months before,’ he insists, ‘what was the point of flying all that way when the old guy was already dead?’ A few days ago, facing the prospect of a trip to Australia, he confided in a whisper that he has a flying phobia. We’d probably all have thought better of him – including the sister who’s never spoken to him since – if he’d admitted to this a long time ago.

For those of us who worry about worrying, it’s comforting to be told by the nineteenth century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard that everybody experiences anxiety and despair. ‘Just as a doctor might say that there probably isn’t a single human being who is completely healthy, so anyone who really knows humanity might say that there isn’t a single human who does not despair a little, who does not secretly harbour an unrest, an inner strife, a disharmony, an anxiety about an unknown something, or something that he does not dare to try to know.’ (The Sickness unto Death).

Kierkegaard can’t be accused of celebrating misery. But he did embrace the phenomenon as a necessary and inevitable part of the human condition. In the words of Clare Carlise, author of a new biography of Kierkegaard (Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard, April 2019), ‘he believed that true peace and joy come from the depths of the human heart, which can be reached only by contending with life’s uncertainties’ (‘Is anxiety what makes us human? Why Kierkegaard is still relevant today,’ Prospect Magazine, April 2019; https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/is-anxiety-what-makes-us-human-why-kierkegaard-is-still-relevant-today). The ‘nameless dread’ identified by Wilfred Bion (this blog, 12 November 2018) is probably felt at some point by most of humanity. According to Kierkegaard, we shouldn’t rush away from it, but accept and acknowledge it.

Kierkegaard spent most of his life in Copenhagen, a city which he believed to be steeped in spiritual complacency. His Danish compatriots were apparently not good at admitting to anxiety or despair. Instead, they buried these emotions beneath a heap of material and social distractions. ‘I’m far too busy – or far too rich – to be worried’. Clare Carlisle suggests that this may be the reason why the Danes are so obsessed with the concept of hygge (this blog, 10 September 2016), or ‘being cosy and nice’.

If we add together all the pleasurable moments we experience, Kierkegaard tells us, we won’t end up with a life of enduring satisfaction. Rather, it will be a life of endless distractions. Anxiety will out, it will seep in through the cracks. A prolific writer, Kierkegaard dissects this topic in some of his best-known works, including Fear and Trembling and Repetition. On 1st August 1835 he wrote in his journal:

What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die….Not until a man has inwardly understood himself and then sees the course he is to take does his life gain peace and meaning; only then is he free of that irksome, sinister travelling companion — that irony of life, which manifests itself in the sphere of knowledge and invites true knowing to begin with a not-knowing (Socrates) just as God created the world from nothing.

Understandably, he is often regarded as a precursor of modern existentialism; his writings influenced later twentieth century philosophers such as Heidegger, Sartre and above all Camus.

If anxiety is the converse of happiness – as two of the well-being questions asked by the Office for National Statistics imply (‘How happy did you feel yesterday?’ and ‘How anxious did you feel yesterday?’) –  then anxiety is an important issue for anyone who is interested in being happy. It’s certainly important for me … so in future blogs I’m going to be exploring in a little more detail the thinking of the nineteenth century philosopher who put worry at the forefront of his explorations of the human psyche.