Despair as Comedy

Soren Kierkegaard identifies three varieties of despair. Last week I described the despair of finitude, under the title “Get Real”. So I’ll move on to the “despair of weakness”, which he defines as “the despair of not wanting to be oneself.”

Unlike the despair of finitude, the “weakness” variety doesn’t begin with attraction to the finite but as a result of the choice to avoid the responsibility of living as a unique, self-directed individual. This person feels incapable of being himself.

Those who have learned to feel guilty about everything may easily fall into this despair, motivated by the desire to guard against the risk of more guilt by attempting to do and say what others expect of them. They reason or sense that acting differently from others would cause more recrimination and so more guilt.

This despair “… actually consists of wanting to be someone else.” Only their “someone else” isn’t a real person but the external image of someone they idealize as being above condemnation or criticism.  Someone who need not suffer guilt or consider himself to be the object of disdain.

The person inflicted by the despair of weakness may not relish the rewards of the finite except as they distract from introspection and thereby protect him from the pull of the infinite toward synthesis with the finite.  His motive isn’t attraction but self-defense. He seeks protection from the terrifying temptation to step into the void that lies between his illusions and the reality of who he was created to be.

His illusions and attention to the superficial not only help him avoid connection with the infinite but also with anything more complex than that which he regards as unpleasant. He opts to avoid whatever doesn’t positively affect his present condition or sense of security. In essence, he is so engaged in protecting himself against discomfort or suffering, he can’t think except fleetingly about anything or feel deeply about the concerns of anyone else.

Whereas Kierkegaard finds the person inflicted with the despair of finitude rather pathetic on account of his belief in the value of the ultimately trivial, he sees the person ruled by the despair of weakness as comical, trying in vain to be something imaginary. The poor fellow is the spiritual and emotional equivalent of someone devoted to lip-synching a popular song or thrashing on an air guitar.

Next I’ll turn to the despair of defiance, the variety of despair we novelists find most compelling. Please subscribe, read, and let me know if any of these conditions feel or appear familiar.

Meanwhile, should you care to learn more about the rather bizarre life that has led the author of these posts at least to the edge of either eternity or madness, his story Readiing Brother Lawrence is quite available.

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One comment on “Despair as Comedy
  1. Greg Gorsuch says:

    Well put Ken. I just finished A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer, so this post was a loud echo. Kierkegaard is all about risk, and doesn’t it all come down to that. I can count on both hands how many times I consciously took that road less travels and lived in the infinite at the edge of life. That’s when I learned where God lived.