Run, Run, Run: Selfhood & Despair

Written by: Michael Lucana

I don’t like to run. So I don’t know why I titled this article the way I did. But I do go hiking quite often. Nothing too crazy or dangerous though. Most of the time I wouldn’t even call it hiking, just a very brisk walk in an upwards direction surrounded by lots of trees. That’s what I call hiking anyway. Disagree at your own discretion.

But why do I go hiking? Do I do it to escape from the world? From other people? From myself? In some way yes to all of the above. In other ways, no quite the opposite actually. So let me explain.

I suffer from what the Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard calls Despair. Don’t feel bad for me though, because according to Mr. Kierkegaard so do you, so do all of us:

“…there is not a single human being who does not despair at least a little, in whose innermost being there does not dwell an uneasiness, an unquiet, a discordance, an anxiety in the face of an unknown something, or a something he doesn’t even dare strike up acquaintance with…” (The Sickness Unto Death P.52)

It’s sort of like an illness then, a disease of hopelessness that follows me throughout my life, even when I’m not aware of it. God, that sounds melodramatic doesn’t it? A touch self-pitying? Most of us don’t necessarily feel like we are in despair all of the time, because if we were, then we would all be hiding in our rooms with the lights turned off, unable to do even the most basic things. And we certainly aren’t like that.

But that’s exactly the problem according to Kierkegaard. Most of us don’t think of ourselves as being in Despair, but that’s because we’ve mischaracterized it, made it into a caricature in order to avoid the many ways that it has imbedded itself into our lives.

Well, if we’ve got the wrong idea about Despair, what is it really? According to Kierkegaard: “despair is exactly man’s unconsciousness of being characterized as spirit.” (The Sickness Unto Death P.55) Okay, got it. But what is Spirit then? That sounds a little too, spiritual… Not that I have a problem with Spirituality either, but most of us also tend to think of Spirituality as something divorced from the everyday, from how we live our lives day in and day out, right? Spirituality is going on a retreat to meditate, or sitting in a church praying to God.

Luckily, or unluckily for us, Kierkegaard does provide a definition of what it is to be a Spirit:

“The human being is a spirit […] Spirit is the self […] the self is a relation which relates to itself, or that in the relation which is its relating to itself. The self is not the relation but the relation’s relating to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity. In short a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two terms. Looked at in this way a human being is not yet a self…if the relation relates to itself, then […] this is the self…” (The Sickness Unto Death P.43)

Well, that definition leaves quite a bit to make sense of doesn’t it? Entire libraries of books have been written on trying to work out what is meant here. I’ll try to provide my own interpretation, but remember it is only one of many.

To begin with, we can see in the preceding quote that there are actually three distinct things that are being defined, a human being, a self, and a spirit:

The human being is tied to a Spirit. This isn’t to say that a human being is a Spirit right off the bat, but rather that being a human being will be included in what it is to be a Spirit. Great, but what else? Well, the Spirit is a Self too. The same as before, this doesn’t instantly mean that by being a Self one is a Spirit, but rather, that being a Self is included in being a Spirit. The overall picture that we are supposed to have then, is that what we are is Spirit, but before that, we are a Self, and before that, we are a human being. These ways of existing build on one another. Kierkegaard…is not very clear in spelling out this distinction, for reasons beyond the scope of this article, but I will try to explain these three modes of existing as best as I can and at the end hopefully explain why any of this is even remotely related to hiking.

The Human Being

The human being is defined by Kierkegaard as a synthesis of traits which are opposites of one another. Infinite and finite. Temporal and eternal. Freedom and necessity. Now, we don’t immediately need to get into the specifics of what is involved with each and every one of these sets of oppositions, but we can give an example in order to get some idea.

Take the set of oppositions of necessity and freedom. As a human being, there are certain aspects of my existence that are going to be necessarily restricted, that are going to be factually determined. I can’t help that I was born in the year that I was born, or the country I was born in, or the genetic dispositions that I inherited from my parents. Yes, I could lie about my age, or where I’m from, and so on, but facts are facts right?

But on the other hand, I am also free. I may have been born and raised a certain way, with certain values and points of views about how the world should be, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t educate myself, expand my horizons, go beyond the world view I was raised in. So in this way, I can see that I contain within me both necessity and freedom. Necessity that places on my shoulders certain non-negotiable facts about myself, but freedom which also allows me to not be completely beholden to those very same facts, and in some cases, to even be able to completely surmount them.

For Kierkegaard, this is what it is to exist as a human being, to contain within oneself qualities which are, on the face of it, contradictory to one another. To me, this explains my own life experiences very well, always gravitating towards one way of being and then at another time in the opposite direction. No human being is a fixed set of qualities then, we are constantly in this active process of being either this or that. But this isn’t to be a Self yet, this is, in fact, the bare minimum of existing as a person, in a way.

The Self

Kierkegaard is clear that a human being, viewed as a synthesis of opposing qualities, is not yet a Self. Yes, there is a relationship between those qualities, such as necessity and freedom, and in our day to day lives we are expressing ourselves in our own unique ways, but that is still not the meat of what it is to be a Self.

Well what else could the Self be if not the ways that I express myself? I think of myself as a unique individual, with a distinct history and distinct personality from others around me, shouldn’t that be enough to distinguish me as a Self? For Kierkegaard, apparently not.

The Self, for Kierkegaard, is who you really are deep down, below the surface, regardless of where you come from, what clothes you wear, what social group you belong too, your own personal style, and anything else in between. It’s the real you. Most of us associate what it is to have a self with those immediate externals, as Kierkegaard says elsewhere, “the immediate person doesn’t know himself; he quite literally only knows himself by his coat, he knows what it is to have a self […] only in externals. (The Sickness Unto Death P.84)

But even more so, despite what has been said about identifying the Self with externals, the real you isn’t a thing separate from the world either, as we would normally think at this point. It isn’t a ghost in the machine of the body, or a mere outside observer of the world. No, the way Kierkegaard is spelling it out, the real you is actually that ongoing relationship that you are having with yourself. The real you is the you that, in every minute of every day, is trying to make sense of itself, that is trying to relate to itself and the world around it. That is why it is fundamentally referred to as a relation in a relationship with itself.

I think most of us fall into this category of existing. I most certainly do. We go about our day and every now and then stop to wonder, what is the point of all this? What am I doing with my life? Who am I even, I mean really? Am I this or that? What is my place in the world? What is my relationship with other people? Am I getting this whole existing thing right? If we decide to keep going with those thoughts, to really try to make sense of ourselves, Kierkegaard thinks we start to show the first signs of being a Spirit.

The Spirit & Despair

Well, what more could there be than making sense of myself? If I’m thinking about myself and trying to get a handle on that, isn’t that good enough? Can’t I just go back to the everyday now that I’ve noticed it?

To begin with, it’s wonderful and amazing that as human beings we have the capacity for this kind of interior reflection. But, according to Kierkegaard, we are capable of so much more than that, but are often, even when the opportunity is available, unwilling to see how far our introspective abilities can take us. As he puts it, of people who are unwilling to go further, “the conception they usually have of themselves is very humble; that is, they have no conception of being spirit, the absolute that a human can be […] If one were to imagine a house consisting of basement, ground floor and first floor, […] and if now one were to compare being a human being with such a house, then [the fact] with most people is, alas, that in their own house they prefer to live in the basement.” (The Sickness Unto Death p.73)

To me, this analogy best sums up what Despair consists of. It is not only a profound sense of hopelessness, a subtle layer of unease that permeates my day to day thoughts, but it is also something that I have the potential to change. But that change has to come from an acceptance that the state I’m in isn’t one that I think is all that I deserve. Like Kierkegaard’s confused home-dweller, I have to not only recognize that I’ve been stuck in the basement the whole time through my own inaction, but that I deserve better, that is, I deserve to live on the top floor.

I am a human being, a synthesis of a variety of opposing and contradictory qualities. I am Self, that relation of qualities trying to make sense of itself. But now I really have to put the work in. I have to want to not only get a handle on this Self that I am, but I also have to want to be it. I have to want to stay in this conscious state, always working towards a deeper understanding of myself, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. No matter the things I discover about myself and how I have related to others over the years. For Kierkegaard, this is why Despair is such an all-encompassing problem of the human condition, being a Spirit demands clarity and honesty with yourself about yourself. In short, you can’t bullshit your way around yourself.

The Spirit & G.O.D.

But wait, there’s more. Not only do you have to want to be yourself if you want to be a Spirit, if you truly want to rid yourself of Despair, Kierkegaard also adds that, you have to build a relationship with the power which established you:

“This then is the formula which describes the state of the self when despair is completely eradicated: in relating to itself and in wanting to be itself, the self is grounded transparently in the power that established it.” (The Sickness Unto Death p.44)

There’s no way around this, but the power that Kierkegaard refers to is God, specifically, the Christian God. Even more specifically, the Lutheran Christian God. Kierkegaard’s solution for Despair also requires faith which, I will admit, is a difficult topic which , no will not be resolved in a simple blog. But I will say this, whatever stripe of faith you are, and this includes the atheistic type as well, you gotta believe in something bigger than yourself, something which gives your existence meaning, something which can be the foundation by which your relationship with yourself, and with others, can begin to make sense. I take some solace in the fact that others have taken the same route here when it comes to the G.O.D. question, such as the philosopher Gordon Marino:

“No doubt [faith] will illicit a grimace from many readers. Kierkegaard would disown me for it, but perhaps we can ease the rub of faith by allowing that, if you trust that your task in life is to become an authentic human being, then you will know what you truly fear-namely, becoming a vacant-eyed empty suit of an individual.” (The Existentialist’s Survival Guide p. 54)

But whether or not you settle on religious faith as the cure for what ails you, and that is exactly what Kierkegaard ultimately settled on, the undeniable part of his argument, the one that sticks despite any theological predilections you may have, is that Despair is a real problem that pertains to the human condition, and that it is fully within our power to overcome it, but we gotta want it.


Back to the subject of my hiking. Why do I hike? Is it to get away from myself? From the world? No not really. As Kierkegaard shows us, no matter where we go, no matter how we change external things about ourselves, we can’t ever really get away from Despair, because Despair is ultimately, something that can only ever really be treated by being faced head on, and that is a really uncomfortable thing to do.

So I go on my walks, like a form of self-therapy or self-counseling, to get a handle on that Despair, to treat it by paying attention to it, by examining the contours of it, how it has affected my relationship with myself, with others, and even with that which Kierkegaard calls the power which established me. It’s not always the most pleasant experience, because it means that I have to take a plain and honest look at ways that I’ve failed to live up to Kierkegaard’s conception of Spirit.

But even on days that I come back ragged and tired, I always feel like I’ve done something positive towards helping myself out of that slump of Despair, something that positively impacts my relationship with myself and with other people.

Getting a handle on Despair in this way doesn’t sound like much fun, mix that with having to possibly get sweaty and out of breath, and you may wonder why I’m even recommending hiking. The thing is, I’m not really recommending hiking as a way to get a handle on Despair, it’s a method I use, but it’s not for everyone. I’m not even recommending that you agree with everything Kierkegaard says about the human condition, but I would ask you, as I’ve asked myself constantly, sometimes at my own discomfort the following:

Am I currently relating to myself?

Do I want to be myself?

Am I grounded in something meaningful?

If these are questions that trouble you, or that you find compelling, then perhaps philosophical counseling, either self-guided or with a philosopher is an option to consider. There are many resources available online, one of which is the American Philosophical Practitioners Association, link here, of which I am licensed practitioner.

I’ve only given a very brief summary of Kierkegaard’s conception of Despair in this article. In fact, I’ve really only touched upon the first few lines of one of his most well known works, “The Sickness Unto Death” of which I used the edition published by Penguin Classics. Gordon Marino’s book “The Existentialist’s Survival Guide” has also been a huge help in getting to grips with Kierkegaard. Perhaps in a future article I will provide a summary of the many many ways that we can Despair, according to Kierkegaard. Expect lots of graphs and diagrams when that happens.

If the topic of this discussion seems like something you would like to investigate further on your own, please feel free to contact me in order to schedule a Philosophical Counseling session. All Philosophical Counseling sessions are conducted via Zoom and single-person. If you are located in the San Francisco Bay Area and are interested in conducting an in-person session, please get in touch with me via e-mail. For any other inquiries contact me via e-mail as well.

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