Monthly Archives: January 2012

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.

Get Real

If Soren Kierkegaard wrote the truth, all we need do to overcome melancholy is get real. The catch is, getting real can be an arduous chore, which amounts to vanquishing despair.

Kierkegaard taught that we all are inflicted with despair, a disease far more dangerous than depression or melancholy. And he concluded that both the cause and the result of despair is the alienation of our selves from the infinite.

Each of us was created in human form to be an integrated self, aware of and relating in harmony with both the finite and the infinite.

The finite is necessity, the senses, and the mind as it deals with the superficial, both concrete and abstract. Mathematical equations or the most engaging philosophical or poetic inquiry can be no less finite than a cupcake.

The infinite is God, freedom, and beauty as the manifestation of love and truth.

The self is the result of a synthesis of the finite and the infinite that takes place within us, a conscious unity only accomplished in relationship to God. As long as the self rebuffs or ignores God, it is not itself. And the conscious or unconscious recognition of not being oneself is the substance of despair.

The recognition of our despair should lead us to seek the infinite and finally surrender to its pull and so experience our absolute dependence upon God. But timidity, defiance, or attachment to the familiar allows the finite to hold us captive.

Kierkegaard identifies three categories of despair. In this reflection I’ll introduce the despair of finitude, which “consists in ascribing infinite value to the trivial and temporal.” The person inflicted with this strain of despair considers the stuff of the finite world as supremely valuable. Preachers often call this form of despair idolatry.

The illusion that finite treasures, pleasures, and challenges give life meaning dissuades this person from believing in himself. He calculates that acting in his unique way, rather than in the same manner as the ones by whom he is surrounded, would risk the disapproval of the others. As a result, he might lose all the finite rewards social and public acceptance promise. So he either chooses not to risk being himself or declines to look deeply enough to realize the existence of a potential self beneath the surface.

In Kierkegaard’s vision, these people have “pawned themselves to the world.” They may amass wealth, succeed in careers, prudently calculate social, financial, or political advantages and even be honored by history. Yet they are at best copies of what they admire in others or find that others admire. They have no real self.

In “The Father”, a remarkable short story by Raymond Carver, a mother and daughters are gathered in the kitchen observing the family’s new baby. They offer opinions until one girl says, “He looks like Daddy.”

“But who does Daddy look like?” a sister asks.

The youngest sister answers, “Daddy doesn’t look like anybody.”

They all turn and stare at the father in horror.

I wonder, what more appropriate cause for despair, depression, or melancholy than the recognition, conscious or unconscious, that I am nobody? Literally nobody. The knowledge that I, as a unique being, do not exist.

 

 

Making room for the Infinite

Dallas Willard, in The Spirit of the Disciplines, advocates prayer, solitude and silence, meditation upon the life of Christ, sacrifice and service to others. He implies these disciplines will allow us to make room for what Soren Kierkegaard calls the infinite.

Every believer should read the book. But if Kierkegaard had read it, I imagine he would respond that prescriptions are dangerous, and we each need to discover and practice our unique manner and method.

In my case, prayer may not be the most effective means of accessing the infinite. I have a fitfully wandering mind. Even with a prescribed agenda like the Lord’s Prayer, I need to address one thought at a time because each thought sends me off on a tangent. “Our father–” Zoom, off I go into concerns about parenting.

Solitude and silence work for me.  During the time in my life (age fifteen, following the death of my father) when I most needed to feel the presence of the infinite, I spent nearly every day for a year at a golf course amongst oaks and willows alongside the stream. Usually I played alone. The golf course wasn’t Walden Pond or a hermitage in the desert, but it served.

Meditation upon the wisdom and life of Christ has become a vital part of my routine, and also where these reflections of mine usually begin.

Sacrifice and service to others, I suspect, follow naturally from love conceived in the manner Kierkegaard teaches: that we should obey Christ’s command to love (primarily in action) our neighbors (everyone) without distinction.

And I will add to Willard’s list a discipline I find both difficult and imperative, which is denying myself the right to judge.

Long ago, when I first turned to the Bible, a passage that most rang true was Luke 6:37: “Do not judge not and you will not be judged, do not condemn and you will not be condemned, forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

“Do not judge” felt especially relevant, and I have tried to obey as it applied to severe judgments (this guy is a lowdown, worthless jerk, etc.) Only lately, in response to Kierkegaard’s exacting application of Christ’s commands, have I begun to notice the extent to which I go around judging all day long. He isn’t successful since his car is junk, she doesn’t know how to match clothes, he probably eats too much, she has breast implants, he’s an athlete, she is exceedingly beautiful, as would her friend be if she gained about twenty pounds.

All these judgments of mine, according to Kierkegaard, have the effect of delivering judgment upon myself.

Say we are a curious person who wants to know about others, and instead of our critical judgments we look at people with the intention of seeing the goodness, the love in them. Instead of my eyes and thoughts lingering on the beautiful checker at Trader Joe’s, suppose I turn to the heavy-set older fellow she is checking, and attempt to view him with Jesus’ merciful and loving eye. If I succeed, won’t I get blessed with a deeper appreciation of beauty, more in accord with the infinite?

Kierkegaard has been accused of drawing from Eastern thought, perhaps because of his vision of God echoing our behavior with his behavior toward us. Without exception, Kierkegaard teaches, God’s attitude toward us literally reflects our attitude toward others.

No doubt this will offend many believers, as it seems almost mechanical, more like karma than like the ways of the anthropomorphic God they imagine.

Still, the notion of God’s behavior reflecting ours is an idea worth much consideration, as it may hold a key to the infinite.