Tag Archives: melancholy

I Did It My Way

Having previously written about the despair of finitude and the despair of weakness, two of the three varieties of despair Soren Kierkegaard identifies, I’ll turn to the third, the despair of defiance.

Those inflicted with this form of the disease have experienced the reality of the infinite.  Yet the experience hasn’t humbled them as it ought to. Instead, it has inflamed their self-esteem to the degree that they consider themselves equal to the power that created them and allowed them the experience.

I’m no historian, only a college history minor and writer of historical novels.  Still, I offer for consideration my view that the two most profound influences on the thought and events of the 20th century were the 19th century philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Soren Kierkegaard.

Nietzsche advocated for the supremacy and assertion of human will. Hitler was certainly influenced by Nietzsche, and Marxist dictators such as Lenin, Stalin, and Mao were, if not directly influenced by him, inspired by the school of thought to which he belonged.

A person inflicted with the despair of defiance, as I suspect Nietzsche was, can’t abide feeling subservient.  She may be endowed with a sensitive nature coupled with a brilliant mind and therefore suffer more deeply than most from wounds caused by misunderstanding or rejection. If she has experienced the infinite and been led to believe in an omnipotent creator and ruler, she is likely to blame all the unfairness she experiences or witnesses on that ruler. Having witnessed what she perceives as grievous flaws in creation, and at some level believing she could do better, how could she not defy God’s will to form her into the self he created her to be?

Another person inflicted with the despair of defiance may have succeeded so grandly in worldly pursuits that he concurs with his admirers and believes in his essential superiority.  Why then should he risk submission to his creator’s vision of what his self should become?

As soon as a sense of entitlement or resentment enters us, we expel humility and invite the despair of defiance, which prompts the acts that allow so many honored, successful, and even truth-seeking people to fall from grace. Fyodor Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment is an inspired case study of such a person.

The despair of defiance makes it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich (or powerful, and perhaps the intellectually gifted) to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Because the key to the Kingdom of Heaven is found in the self we are called by our creator to become.

In the film Chinatown, Noah Cross tells Jake Gittes, “I don’t blame myself. You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.”

Notice the defiant won’t take the blame for his despair or anything else, no matter how despicable.

 

 

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.

 

 

Kierkegaard and Cognitive Therapy

Lately, I find myself troubled about gifted and skilled friends who don’t effectively use their gifts because depression saps their energy and motivation.

I wonder if Sören Kierkegaard could help them.

He lived during the first half of the 19th century and studied philosophy at the University of Copenhagen. A fellow student was Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’ collaborator.

Kierkegaard was plagued by melancholy. The condition interfered with his studies, confounded his friendships, and doomed his one great romance. But rather than allow melancholy to silence him, he wrote many books in pursuit of answers that might offer a cure.

Two years and a month ago, Pam left Zoë and me. Since then, both my daughter and I have proven both resilient and vulnerable. Sometimes she descends into melancholy. Sometimes, I do.

Enter Kierkegaard. A few months after Pam left, he became my mentor.

Part of my job as a writer is passing along wisdom I encounter. Now, I feel compelled because most readers shy away from Kierkegaard even though his insights have the power to shatter and rebuild our worlds. But his writing is dense and ponderous. It may only be accessible to patient readers in desperate need of answers and willing to devote their attention to his books for a long while.

Whether simpler expression of his thoughts can help lift anyone from the lethargy of depression, I don’t know. Still, I will try to clearly and accurately express some essential Kierkegaard themes, and to comment briefly upon their relevance.

I may soon tackle:

• the command to love without distinction;

• the perfidy of family values;

• the abolition of conscience;

• cleverness as a highway to hell.

As my mom used to say, we shall see.