A Cursed Blessing: Søren Kierkegaard’s theory of despair. (CLARE CARLISLE, December 11/18, 2023, The Nation)


You’ve probably had the experience—perhaps while listening to music, seeing an old friend, or walking in nature—of feeling as though you’ve reconnected with some deep part of yourself. These moments might not be outwardly dramatic, but inwardly they feel significant, even profound. They remind you that, for some time, an important part of yourself had gone missing, and you’d forgotten that it even existed. “The greatest danger, that of losing one’s self, can occur so quietly that it is as if it were nothing at all,” wrote Søren Kierkegaard. “Every other loss—an arm, a leg, five rixdollars, a spouse, etc.—is noticed, however.”


Kierkegaard called this loss of the self “despair”: a spiritual sickness that, he believed, afflicts us all. The way he describes it, despair sounds like bad news, and in a way it is. Yet for Kierkegaard, despair reveals the spiritual reality of our being. It is a sign that we are more than just bodies, thoughts, and emotions—since all these things were still there after we’d lost touch with our deeper, truer self. […]

Kierkegaard’s analysis of despair rests on the distinction between a human being and a self. A human being, he explains, is a synthesis of opposites: “of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.” But this he continues, “is not yet a self.” To be a self, a human being—who is already a composite of relations—must develop a relationship to itself. This involves both consciousness and desire. Relating to ourselves means being aware (or unaware) of ourselves and wanting (or not wanting) to be ourselves. It also means recognizing that we did not cause or create ourselves. We are brought into being and sustained in existence by something other than ourselves—and this “something other,” at least in Kierkegaard’s view, is God.

A metaphor might help here. Take a sheet of paper, write “infinite” on the left-hand side of the page and “finite” on the right-hand side, then fold it in half. Repeat this process with two more pieces of paper, the second reading “eternal” and “temporal” and the third “freedom” and “necessity.” Put the folded sheets in a neat pile: Here is the human being. Then fold that pile in half again, to make a thicker wedge: Here is the self, a relation of the relations. But that paper didn’t fold itself, did it? It was folded by God, who holds us in his hands. If God lets go, the pages fall apart and scatter on the ground.


So how does this relate to despair? For Kierkegaard, people who fall into despair are spiritually disconnected from themselves: There is nothing in their lives that holds together that entire composite of relations that makes them who they are. Though he was writing in a Protestant culture, there is nothing specifically Christian, or even biblical, about this notion of godly connection and disconnection. For Kierkegaard, being a self means needing and longing to find yourself, to become yourself—and this means reaching out, across the abyss, in search of God. That search, even in a secular sense, is potent. “God” may mean many different things, even if it only names a mystery, and in Kierkegaard’s work, this concept is seldom nailed down.