Speaking of Faith…

Written by Michael Lucana

This is an exploration of the concept of faith from an Existentialist viewpoint. I freely borrowed, reinterpreted, and repurposed many ideas from Soren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling,” translated by Alastair Hannay. In addition, while the arguments below are ascribed to Kierkegaard himself, it should be noted that the book itself is written under the peudonym of “Johannes de Silentio.” For the sake of simplicity, I have combined the views of Silentio and Kierkegaard.

I have to admit, I only started reading the works of Soren Kierkegaard (B.1813 – D.1855) very recently. And as someone who has always been keenly interested in philosophy and religion, you would think that I would have had some familiarity with one of the most famous precursors to Christian-Existentialism. But nope, nothing.

So, over the course of the past year I decided to go for it. I picked up a couple of books by Kierkegaard and really tried to make an effort to see just what the big deal was. Once I got my bearings, (Kierkegaard’s writing style is incredibly dense and loaded with a very special brand of irony) I kind of began to kick myself for never having read him sooner. When I read what he had to say about diverse topics like anxiety, despair, and even love, I was honestly kind of surprised at how close some of his words hit.

I’ve written on what Kierkegaard has to say about anxiety and despair recently, and how his words concerning those topics have hit a nerve with me. But I haven’t really deep dived into what he has to say about faith and this is mostly because he has so much to say about it. So, this article is an attempt to make amends of sorts, to try to get into what I think is so important about the way that Kierkegaard thinks about faith.

A Self-Critical Christianity

Unlike most philosophers who focus on religion, Kierkegaard is very much concerned with shining a light on what is actually involved in the lived experience of faith. But does this make him a theologian, like the great theologians of the Medieval period in Europe? Not quite.

This isn’t to say that writers like Saint Anselm of Canterbury or Saint Thomas Aquinas weren’t concerned with their faith, but rather, their projects were more concerned with articulating the rational features of beliefs that they were very much already invested in. Someone like Anselm for example, already bought into the whole Christianity thing, and his writings were really more concerned with spelling out his beliefs in a way that he thought were rationally justifiable.

Kierkegaard, in this regard, is an entirely different creature with an entirely different set of concerns. The reason for this is that, for Kierkegaard, Christianity has already been around for close to two-thousand years. It doesn’t need to be, and, according to him, perhaps should never have been, defended on a rational basis.

Additionally, Christianity, for Kierkegaard, is politically endorsed in Denmark, it’s a part of everyday culture, and its accompanying beliefs are assented to, but as a matter of course. It’s an inauthentic sort of Christianity, at least the way Kierkegaard sees it. One is born into it, and in some way, is forced to conform to the beliefs that belong to it. Faith itself, the experience of it, doesn’t really seem to be required in this sort of Christian life, and that is exactly why Kierkegaard, in many of his writings, takes aim at trying to work out exactly what faith is and why it even matters.

What is Religion without Faith?

How can you be a Christian, or religious in any sense, without having faith though? What does that even mean for Kierkegaard?

In Kierkegaard’s view, the age in which he lives is one where Christianity uneasily sits side by side with ‘enlightened’ philosophical systems like Hegelianism, which he thinks treats faith as akin to a naïve, or undeveloped way of existing, of being in the world. Think of small children. They live in the immediate moment, being carried from one experience to another. It isn’t until their cognitive capacities fully develop, and they learn language and gain experience that we really think they’ve matured, that we can really say that they are rational beings. Should they choose to retreat to a child-like way of living in the world, we would normally think that there was something wrong, that they had taken a step backwards.

In this same way, Hegelianism takes it that, to stick to faith is to compromise your own rationality, to go backwards, not forward. The true mark of a fully developed person is to move beyond faith, to something more certain, more rational. Something like knowledge. After all, “Faith […] keeps fairly ordinary company, it belongs with feeling, mood, idiosyncrasy, hysteria and the rest.” (97) And, if one really thinks of faith in this way, then it is no surprise that faith could only ever be something that was suited to “clumsier natures…” (66)

But despite this view of faith, which Kierkegaard takes to be implicitly assented to in the culture of his day, most people still think of themselves as Christians. They still go to mass, they still get married in churches, and they still behave as if they were Christians. But really, what they are is only culturally Christian, at least for Kierkegaard. They are, in his view, merely citizens of Christendom, unknowingly following only the external trappings of the religion, while all the time carrying with them this internal idea that faith is really something that only a rationally immature person would be capable of. It is for this reason that Kierkegaard jokingly asks, “…why do we sometimes hear of people blushing to admit they have faith?” (79). In other words, why is having faith something to be embarrassed about?

For Kierkegaard then, his task, as he sees it, is to articulate a concept of faith that places it either on equal footing with rationality, or maybe even beyond it.

A Bible Story

While it may seem that Kierkegaard’s move should be to completely attack philosophical thinking and reject the validity of rationality, he doesn’t quite do that. He’s not completely anti-rationalist. What he wants to do instead is to seriously engage with philosophical thinking and in doing so, establish that faith is not as simple as we would like to think.

Throughout much of Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard repeatedly comes back to the biblical story of Abraham, who was commanded by God to sacrifice his own son Isaac. Previous to this, God had promised Abraham that his descendants would become a mighty nation. It could be said that all of Abraham’s hopes and dreams were tied up with Isaac. Here’s the passage from Genesis 22 if you are unfamiliar with it, I have streamlined it slightly:

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. […] , he set out for the place God had told him about […]

[…] Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.

But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” […] Do not lay a hand on the boy […]Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Kierkegaard, in considering this story, is both astounded and quite rightly horrified by Abraham’s faith in God. After all, on the face of it, there is no way for Abraham to justify the killing of Isaac in any way that accords with common notions of morality. Yet Kierkegaard says that Abraham is held up as the exemplar of faith, that if we’re trying to figure out what faith consists of, we should be looking at Abraham.

So again and again Kierkegaard tries to justify Abraham’s killing of Isaac on rational grounds, and again again, as he himself even admits, he fails to do just that. Abraham is always doomed, philosophically speaking. This seems like an admission that there is something seriously wrong with faith, that it really is a crude and primitive way of being that we should move on from as quickly as possible. After all, who would want to worship a God that asks us to do that?

Putting Philosophy in its Place

But Kierkegaard makes an interesting move, or at least it’s a move that I’ve always found very fascinating. You see, instead of taking his inability to justify Abraham’s actions as proof that there’s something wrong with faith, he takes it as a sort of proof that there’s something wrong with rationality, as exemplified in philosophical thinking. As Kierkegaard sees it, there might be something about rationality that prevents it from understanding, on a deeper level, exactly what is going on with the story of Abraham and Isaac. In this way, Kierkegaard thinks, the Abraham episode is not a literal endorsement of child sacrifice, but an endorsement of something far different and actually quite foreign to rational thinking.

As Kierkegaard puts it, if we buy into the rationalist view of the world, we are prone to think that, “faith is something inferior or that it is an easy matter..” (80), that it is something that can be understood and then ultimately, be set aside. But there is more to faith than this, a rich interior landscape which can’t be reduced or explained away even by philosophy, as he says:

“Philosophy cannot and should not give us an account of faith, but should understand itself and know just what it has indeed to offer, without taking anything away, least of all cheating people out of something by making them think it is nothing.” (63)

This is different from saying that philosophy should ‘stick to its lane’ or mind its own business. Far from it. After all, the way that Kierkegaard gets to his own conclusions is through philosophical reflection, no doubt about that. But Kierkegaard is not using philosophy to pass judgment on faith, instead, he’s using philosophy to get a better idea of what faith consists of, even if it means rejecting the commonly held view of his day (and possibly even our own) that faith is just something like an irrational belief.

In doing do, Kierkegaard also thinks he’s being more true to the spirit of philosophy which, after all, has its origin in the humble admission that real wisdom actually consists in knowing that you don’t have knowledge. This admission should, if anything, push us towards a more authentic form of rational inquiry, not only about the nature of faith, but of how we relate to it. After all, faith is what lies at the heart of “the paradox of [human] existence,” (76). In other words, as Kierkegaard sees it, getting a grasp on faith is what helps us make sense of our own experience as human beings, and the experience of being a human being is, most of the time, anything but rational.

So what is Faith?

For Kierkegaard, faith is not really anything like a belief that one primitively assents to. It’s not really a rational kind of knowledge either. Somebody can’t really say they have faith if all they do is say, ‘I believe that God exists,’ or ‘I know that God exists.’ These two ways of thinking about God demand rational justification, they demand to be examined and criticized just like any other belief that we may have. This is why I think that Kierkegaard, unlike the Medieval Theologians previously discussed, doesn’t really try to argue that God exists. As he says, “…faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off,” (82) In other places, he calls faith the ‘greatest passion’ that one could have, and that passion is directed towards, “the eternal being,” (80) God.

So, for Kierkegaard, faith is a certain kind of relationship with God. And it is this relationship with God that really underlies how Kierkegaard conceives of faith, as an obligation to a certain kind of life, and to a certain kind of attitude that one has towards the divine. When we look back at the Abraham episode from Genesis 22 and try to to make sense of it under this sort of interpretation, we begin to notice two very interesting things about the sort of relationship that Abraham has with God.

First, Abraham does not hesitate to relinquish Isaac. God commands (seemingly capriciously) that this which, by all accounts, is the dearest thing to Abraham is to be given up, to be renounced.

To relinquish what is your heart’s desire is not anything divinely mysterious by the way. It’s painfully difficult, maybe impossible in some cases, but it is a capacity that every human being has in them. It’s more than just the capacity to accept loss, heartbreak, misfortune, and all the horrible things that sometimes happen in life that don’t make any sense at all. It’s also the capacity to willingly, and actively, give up your own comfort and joys when it is clear that it is unrealistic to hold on to them.

In Abraham’s case, he is given a horrible task, but the task is not given to him as a choice really. It’s not as if God says right away, ‘Do this or do not do this.’ No, actually, the command is given as something which must come to pass. God might as well have said to Abraham, ‘your son Isaac is destined to die, no other way about it.’ But additionally, and even more horribly, Abraham still needs to move towards this destined moment, he still voluntarily needs to pack up the donkey, get himself over to Moriah, walk up on up there, and build the damn altar. He still needs to go along with destiny, fate, God’s commandment. He can’t just sit back and let things play out, he needs to have some involvement in the whole terrible affair.

This is what Kierkegaard calls the first part to faith, what he calls ‘infinite resignation.’ In infinite resignation, one “renounces the love that is the substance of [their] life,” and in this way, according to Kierkegaard, they are “reconciled in pain.” (75) But that is just the first step, there is still a ‘second movement’ to be carried out.

Second, Abraham does not waver in his belief that God will give him what God has promised him. Abraham does not succumb to despair, he does not stop giving a damn, even when he has seemingly lost everything.

Nowhere in the account of the attempted sacrifice of Isaac are we privy to Abraham’s inner thoughts, but he does show a commitment to go forward full steam with God’s commandment, as if it were almost a preordained event. Yet there is no doubt that Abraham loves his son Isaac, that his whole world, that all his hopes and dreams rest with Isaac, at least the way that Kierkegaard interprets it.

Yet Abraham continues without hesitation up until the moment that God stops him. It was, after all a test. And when Abraham receives Isaac back, he takes him back as if he had never renounced him, as if he had never stopped caring. But Abraham’s response to getting Isaac back could have only been possible if Abraham had always possessed hope in the face of apparent hopelessness. That is, Abraham never completely renounced that which he loved.

Kierkegaard thinks that this holding on to hope when all seems hopeless can only be possible, “by virtue of the absurd, by virtue of the fact that for God all things are possible.” (75). Abraham needs to be deeply committed to the idea that God will not fail him, that somehow, no matter how things play out, God will fulfill His promises. This is what it is to have faith apparently.

Of course, we are not meant to think that we should literally do what Abraham did in order to say that we have faith. No, that instance of faith is specific to Abraham, as Kierkegaard insists. What we are supposed to take away from that story is the attitude towards the divine that Abraham exhibited, and the paradoxical movement away from the world and also towards it that Abraham made.

Living in Faith

I’ll be quite honest, to this day, as I’m typing this out, I myself still can’t wrap my head completely around Kierkegaard’s idea of what it means to have authentic faith. I can follow along with his thinking, even see the validity in what he has termed ‘infinite resignation,’ but that second move, that embracing of the ‘absurd,’ the second essential piece to faith, ah that seems hard to do. Why? Because it seems almost incomprehensible doesn’t it?

You lose everything and you accept it? Ok, that’s difficult but it seems humanly possible. I can try to distance myself like an ascetic from attachments, I can say to myself, ‘in this life, things will be taken away from me (by God), the best I can do is develop a strong sense of selflessness in order to be reconciled with the pain and confusion that accompanies being a human being. I am in love with someone and we can never be together? Okay then, I renounce any claim to ever being with the one I love. I sever my attachment. In this way I’ll survive, I’ll cope.’

But then you have to go further and say, ‘I also look forward to the day when those things that God takes away from me will come back to me in some way, also by the grace of God.’ To keep using the analogy about lost love (one of Kierkegaard’s favorite analogies by the way), ‘I have accepted that I will never be with the one I love. But I also know that one day she will come back to me, in some way, shape, or form, and on that day I will have her back as if I had never lost her, as if I had never renounced my attachment to her.’

And this is what confuses me and leaves me unable to make that leap into faith, that leap into a way of life which gives up all claim to the things of the world but never really gives up caring for them. I can’t be Abraham and both resign myself to the loss of my son while at the same time hoping against hopelessness that God will somehow restore him to me. I can’t let go and also hold on at the same time. It’s a fine line and I don’t know if I’m cut out for something like it, but then again, when I read Kierkegaard, even he doesn’t always sound like he thinks he’s capable of it either.

For a human being to have this sort of faith, they would have to be built different, they would have to be made of something far better and stronger than I think I could ever be with my mere rationality. They would have to be both something astounding and really, kind of frightening also.

Yet faith is something that, according to Kierkegaard, we are all capable of embodying, if we authentically choose to commit to it. This is the main thing about Kierkegaard’s approach to faith, one that I’ve skirted around quite a bit in this article. For Kierkegaard, faith is a deeply personal choice, it’s something that you can’t be born or even forced into, and it’s not something that he thinks you can be completely convinced about on a rational level either. It’s not even something that he thinks you could really fully explain to another person.

As a human being you are thrown into an absurd world that seems to make no sense. More than that, the world is completely hostile to you, taking away those things you grow to love without really caring how you feel about it. Kierkegaard’s preferred response to this is not to question the existence of God, nor to sink into nihilistic despair, but instead to actually turn to God, and say, ‘I accept everything terrible and absurdly horrible that you send my way. I accept it to such a degree that I might as well be moving towards it myself. But despite how things turn out, I will not stop caring, I will not stop loving, I will not stop giving a damn. I won’t simply shut myself off from the world, I won’t give up on trying to make it better, or on getting back what I’ve lost, in whatever way you see fit, because ultimately, it is all up to you.’

Maybe I can’t fully understand this way of life, this way of relating to the world, to others, to the divine, but then again, maybe I’ve been going about it all wrong. Maybe I’ve been trying to rationalize it and only making it more difficult for myself. Human existence is paradoxical, full of contradictions, and awfully absurd in so many small and large ways. Maybe the simplest way through it has just been sitting in front of me this whole time. Maybe it really can be just as simple as taking a leap.

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.

Excursions into Anxiety

Written by Michael Lucana

This is an exploration of anxiety from an Existentialist viewpoint. This particular subject is close to my heart and so I drew much from own personal trials and tribulations. Everybody has their own battles with anxiety that they contend with and this essay is meant in no way to minimize or negate those experiences. I freely borrowed, reinterpreted, and repurposed many ideas from Soren Kierkegaard’s “The Concept of Anxiety” translated by Alastair Hannay.

I’ve always had a hard time wrapping my mind around the concept of anxiety. And I don’t say this as someone who has had no direct experience with it. In fact, I say this as someone who would describe themselves as a highly anxious person. But, if I had to describe what anxiety feels like, I would describe it as, being constantly afraid, or perpetually worried. But worried about what? Well, everything really.

If I could list every type of thing that has ever given me anxiety, I don’t think I would have enough words. Anxiety has followed me in all my ups and downs, it has been a constant companion, speaking in many different voices, about many different topics. But I have found one pervasive feature whenever I’ve tried to catalogue my anxieties, one constant that all these anxieties seem to share. They always take me out of the present, they always keep me from being able to enjoy this moment, the here and now. I mean, if I’m too busy being anxious about possibly being fired for some typos in an email I’ve written, or I’m suddenly panicking about the way I woefully wronged someone decades ago, then you can be sure it’s getting in the way of my enjoying painting time with my daughters.

And in this way, I have always viewed my anxiety as something that keeps me from the present, keeps me from being here in the moment, in a real way, in a way that matters. Furthermore, because I’m not able to be in the present, I have no way of moving forward, of improving my situation. I’m stuck. I’m hopeless. So what have I done to try to fix this? Pretty much what everybody else does I’m sure.

“If I could list every type of thing that has ever given me anxiety, I don’t think I would have enough words.”

Causal Approaches to Anxiety

In many ways, we tend to approach anxiety in causal terms. We are not so much concerned with investigating the anxiety by itself, i.e. what it means to be anxious, as we are normally concerned with placing the blame on some aspect of ourselves, and then getting to work on mitigating the effect that anxiety has on us.

For example, if we assign the blame for anxiety on some neurochemical factor, we may seek medication to help dilute that pervading unease that follows us everywhere we go. In a similar but probably more self-destructive way, I’ve tried to medicate myself in the past with drugs and alcohol in order to reduce that constant rumbling of disquiet in my mind, in order to be able to stop and just enjoy things as they are. It’s never worked out for me though, because as soon as I’ve sobered up the next day, that anxiety has always returned stronger than ever, almost mocking, as if to say, “You can’t get rid of me that easily.”

At other times, I’ve considered that maybe I just need to discipline my mind better in order to deal with anxiety. I remember a few years ago having to interview for a prospective job over the phone because it was out of state. Not only had I not interviewed for a job in years, but I was in a financially precarious position at the time, and was placing my cards on landing this particular job because I needed to ensure that I had work lined up for me as soon as I arrived. Prior to the call, I was imagining so many ways that I could mess up the interview, by saying the wrong thing, forgetting key facts that showed what a strong candidate I was, and so on and so on. In that moment, I conducted a few mental exercises to help refocus my mind to the task at hand and was able to land the job.

Good job. Case closed on anxiety right? Except it really wasn’t, because even though I was able to deal with my anxiety in that particular instance, that didn’t stop it from ever recurring again, from finding some new and inventive thing to worry about, to fret over. I guess what it really comes down to, no matter what I’ve done, this predisposition towards anxiety has never really disappeared.

There is nothing inherently wrong with these causal approaches to anxiety by the way. Anxiety is not a pleasant feeling. And in many extreme cases, it can be debilitating and even dangerous to one’s own health. Of course, we don’t want to feel anything unpleasant so it would make sense to attack the problem by going straight to what we believe is it’s source. Thus, we medicate that anxiety out of us, or we discipline ourselves through mental exercises or meditation to keep anxiety at bay.

However, through my own experience I’ve found that this causal approach to anxiety is only half the picture. I’m lucky that in my life I have had some rare instances in which the anxieties that I normally experience have cleared, if even for a few minutes here and there. Those have been wonderful moments, but even when I’ve been in them, I’ve taken notice of this underlying expectation, this wariness that is always fearfully looking outward towards what lies beyond the immediate moment of calmness and tranquility. And when I’ve noticed this, I’ve realized that anxiety is still with me, waiting for it’s big moment to really let loose.

“I guess what it really comes down to, no matter what I’ve done, this predisposition towards anxiety has never really disappeared.”

EXISTENTIAL Anxiety

For the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), anxiety is an existential category, that is, it is a fundamental part of the human experience. Thus, it is something that we can never truly get rid of. In his classic work, “The Concept of Anxiety,” he attempts to work out what the meaning of anxiety, viewed existentially, is.

To begin with, Kierkegaard points out that, while anxiety initially seems like it is a worry or apprehensiveness associated with fear, it “differs altogether from fear and similar concepts that refer to something.” (51) I think many of us conceive of anxiety only in this way as well. It has to have an object, some threat that it can point to and say, “this is the object of my worry.”

But that doesn’t seem quite right on closer inspection does it? As even I’ve admitted, the list of things that have given me anxiety, that have caused me worry, is so extensive, that even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t be able to catalogue them all. Because really, if my anxiety is merely reducible to a fear of something, and everything is the object of that fear, then I’m not necessarily afraid of any object per se. Really, my anxiety has nothing as it’s object.

So, nothing begets anxiety. Anxiety as an apprehensiveness merely is, and it always has been since, well, since we were born. Surprisingly, even children have anxiety according to Kierkegaard, but as he puts it, it manifests differently for them, it doesn’t quite have the same negative characteristic that we assign to it as adults:

“When we observe children, we find the anxiety more definitely intimated as a seeking after the adventurous, the prodigious, and the mysterious.” (51)

When I get home at night sometimes, and my daughters are still awake, they almost will always ask to play hide and seek. But they are very particular about how they play it. First, all the lights in the house have to be off. Second, I have to be the one that hides. Third, they get to have a flashlight while they search for me. I go off and find a nice hiding spot (of which I have mapped out many at this point) and listen to them countdown from their bedroom and then start their search in a big dark house, with only a flashlight to light their way.

Honestly, this doesn’t feel like hide and seek. This feels like a horror movie, I’m the monster, and they’re the scared protagonist trying to survive. I can always hear them gasping and whimpering at every creak of the floorboard as they try to find me, and when they do, I usually jump up and growl at them. They scream and then begin to laugh just as quickly. In this sense, they embody exactly what Kierkegaard is pointing out about anxiety in children. To children that general fear of the unknown is a game, an adventure, something to be sought out.

So, for Kierkegaard, on a more fundamental level, anxiety is like a sort of expectant restlessness ingrained into the human condition from birth. Even children seem to have it, but for them (and I think even young adults), it doesn’t necessarily manifest itself as worry, but rather as wanting to move outward, to search out the possibilities that are out there beckoning. So where does it go wrong? Where does it all start to sour? When does anxiety take on a more sinister tone?

“To children that general fear of the unknown is a game, an adventure, something to be sought out.”

THE DIZZINESS OF FREEDOM

I went traveling down to Big Sur in California recently. There’s something about the wild harsh atmosphere of the coastline there that just speaks to something primordial in my bones. It’s hard to explain. But an interesting feature about Big Sur, well, interesting to me, is that there are very few real beaches there. Most of the time, the Pacific Ocean is crashing directly onto a rocky cliffside that is kind of crumbling away as you’re standing on it. On these occasions when I’m standing out there on some windy edge, admiring the dark gorgeous waves, I’ll sometimes have this moment where I look directly down at my feet and realize that if I wanted to, I could easily jump off.

This is a strange dizzying moment for me. I’m usually overcome by images of myself falling down, maybe hitting a few rocks on the way, and then impacting on the waters below, finally being swallowed up, engulfed really, by the roaring deep. I feeling of lightness always sets in around my ribcage at this time, a recognition of exactly how easy it would be to do the deed, and then just as quickly, I start to feel faint, shudder, and take a few steps back to steady myself.

This is actually a common experience that many people have had and Kierkegaard uses it as a metaphorical means to more accurately illustrate what existential anxiety, in it’s negative aspect, consists of. He says:

“Anxiety can be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy.” (75)

As Kierkegaard has pointed out, even children have a form of proto-anxiety, an apprehensiveness of that yawning abyss of possibilities that stretches out in front of every single one of us. But children, for Kierkegaard, are also innocent, they are “dreaming spirit,” (59) that is, they are not quite aware of themselves or the dangers that may be present in those possibilities. Leaping into the unknown could turn out good, or it could turn out bad, how would they know the difference? They don’t get dizzy, don’t feel unease at it. That is why they normally treat danger like a game, or a novelty, until they learn through experience, or are taught what they should fear and then begin to internalize it.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing by the way. On a practical level, children need to learn that many times, it’s better to not jump off every metaphorical cliffside that you’re on. However, sometimes we take it too far don’t we? Sometimes, without even being aware of it, we make a decision, as if in a haze, to never take the plunge in any circumstance, no matter how great or small. We start to always back away from possibilities, from the possibility of danger, of being hurt, of being let down, of letting others down, of letting ourselves down. This excitement and levity by which we understand that we have a choice in childhood turns into a dizziness as we get older, as we lose our innocence.

“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom […]and freedom now looks down into its own possibility and then grabs hold of finiteness to support itself. In this dizziness freedom subsides.” (75)

It is in this subsiding of freedom, of closing the door on possibilities that we do damage to ourselves, according to Kierkegaard. This doesn’t mean that I should have jumped off that cliff by the way. That was just a metaphor. But there are moments in my life that I look back on now, some minor, some course-altering, when I should have taken the chance and not held myself back, not chosen finitude over possibility.

Sometimes we think that to choose finitude, to choose the safe way, is always supposed to refer to staying in a marriage, or staying in your hometown, or working the same job for half of your life. And to be free and throw yourself into possibilities is to do the opposite of those things. Trust me, you can still be choosing finitude when you break off a relationship because you’d rather avoid the painful process of really working on building something strong and long-lasting. Sometimes the choice to really put some work into something like that is a lot more frightening than merely running off.

The point of the matter is that, the particular choices we are making are not necessarily important in deciding whether or not we have “done it right,” acted with freedom. No, the point is that by refusing to even think to take the metaphorical leap into the unknown, by not even stopping to consider it as an option, we fail to live up to who we are, who we truly are, we fail to be truly free. And in failing to be truly free we don’t even get rid of that anxiety, if anything, it becomes twisted up, becomes a bogeyman.

Why? Because it becomes associated with with that failure to embrace possibility, hell, to embrace even the possibility of possibility. That lightness and strange excitement thus turns into something dreadful, something nauseating, something that we can’t sit in the same room with.

“This doesn’t mean that I should have jumped off that cliff by the way. That was just a metaphor. But there are moments in my life when I should have taken the chance and not held myself back, not chosen finitude over possibility.”

TAKING THE LEAP

So existential anxiety is something that we carry with us all of our lives. For Kierkegaard, at the beginning of our lives, it is essentially not a negative quality either, rather it is a restless sensitivity, or an awareness of our inborn freedom. But under the confusion of dizziness, in always choosing the safe route, the route of finitude, we actually kind of pervert anxiety’s intended use, and do ourselves more harm than good in the long run. While I have explained that some forms of extreme anxiety can be harmful to our health and do need to be treated as real disorders and dealt with as such, existential anxiety cannot be treated in the same manner.

So how does Kierkegaard resolve this underlying dilemma? What does he think we can do to get rid of the pain that is brought on by existential anxiety? To begin with, Kierkegaard points out two moments within anxiety itself.

First, the moment in which we recognize the existence of unlimited possibility, of both the good, and the bad that can occur. Second, there is the moment in which we grasp onto finitude, when we pull away from those possibilities and choose the safe route. In between these two moments, Kierkegaard thinks, there is a solution of sorts.

“Between these two moments lies the leap, which no science has explained, and which no science can explain.” (75)

What is this leap? In the most simple terms, it is, a leap into faith, into embracing the possibility of both the good and the bad, of things turning out one way or turning out another way. It is to recapture, in a very qualified way, that innocence you had as a child when you not only dwelt in anxiety, but despite this, were able to leap into the unknown.

Kierkegaard has a very sophisticated and sometimes frustratingly obscure conception of faith, even I will admit that. Not only that, although much of the way that I interpret Kierkegaard is through secular lens, there is no denying that his philosophy is unashamedly Christian. But that doesn’t mean that faith has to merely be restricted to faith in God, or faith in Christianity. I think we can still construct a preliminary conception of faith that will allow us, for now, to make that leap that Kierkegaard thinks is necessary to get a handle on existential anxiety. And if anyone disagrees that’s totally fine as well.

To begin with, Kierkegaard reminds us, “in possibility all things are equally possible and anyone truly brought up by possibility has grasped the terrifying just as well as the smiling. (189) What does this mean? Well, it means that we must be able to embrace this freedom that is at the core of our nature, and we are able to embrace it correctly, not with fear or terror, but with acceptance that it could go either way. In short, we must be able to live with possibility in all its ups or down and, by virtue of this, we must be prepared to always struggle with that feeling which cohabitates with it, with anxiety.

That is why Kierkegaard also says that, “that individual must be honest toward possibility and have faith,” or what he calls an “inner certainty,” (190). This inner certainty, this faith in yourself and your decisions, or, if you prefer, in God’s decisions for you, is key in helping you get through that storm of dizziness when you’re at the the door of the possibility of possibilities.

You might think that to choose finitude is a good enough choice, but that’s because you’ve gotten confused by years of looking at anxiety in the wrong way. Remember, that awful feeling, that dizziness, that worried concern, it actually used to be an exhilaration, a life-affirming lightness in your heart at all the ways, both good and bad, that things could turn out. You’re not ignorant anymore, you know that taking the leap could lead to heartbreak or disappointment, but it could equally lead to the opposite.

I think this inner certainty that Kierkegaard goes on about at some length, this faith, is commonly mistaken for “a certainty that everything will turn out fine.” It might, it might not. The point is, with a correct understanding of what anxiety is, and with the fortitude provided by faith, one retakes their freedom, one gets to choose.

“What is this leap? In the most simple terms, it is, a leap into faith, into embracing the possibility of both the good and the bad, of things turning out one way or turning out another way.”

LIVING WITH ANXIETY

So the real question is, does taking the leap in all situations cure one of existential anxiety? Does this resolve the persistent nagging feeling? The one that underlies all these other forms of anxiety? No actually, and would you want it to? It’s hard to imagine this, even during the coldest midnight hours (oh I’ve been there). But it’s actually a beautiful thing to have this feeling of existential anxiety, it is a sign that you are free in a very real sense, free to make the choices that truly matter, and not only that, in a way it is a sign you give a damn about this life you live and the people you get to live it with. Because honestly, if you didn’t give a damn, then you wouldn’t be this bothered by anything that has happened, is happening, or will someday happen. This is the weird gift of anxiety.

But it is a responsibility as well. If you ignore your anxiety, if you only steer yourself towards finitude, towards a lack of real faith (whether faith in yourself or God, you choose), then you trap yourself, you give up hope in a variety of ways.

Concerning this responsibility which manifests as existential anxiety, Kierkegaard says:

“…it is an adventure that every human being has to live through, learning to be anxious so as not to be ruined […] Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.” (187)

What does this mean? To be anxious in the right way? Is existential anxiety actually something that can be steered, that can be controlled? In one sense, no it can’t be, as we’ve seen again and again in the examples provided, anxiety merely is. It is self-generating ex nihilo.

But in another sense, it is also something that is in our power to manage. Kierkegaard gives us this piece of advice when, in the quiet of repose we begin to notice the unease begin to make it’s presence felt again, when it begins to whisper to us how things can always go wrong, or it begins to shows us with force that no, we haven’t quite go it right, that there’s still work to be done.

“…when it announces itself, when it […] makes it look as though it has invented an altogether new instrument of torture, far more terrible than anything before, [do not] draw back, [do not try to] ward it off with noise and confusion, [bid] it welcome, greet it solemnly, and like Socrates who raised the poisoned cup, [say] as a patient would say to the surgeon, when the painful operation is about to begin: Now I am ready. Then anxiety enters into [your] soul and search[es] out everything, and frightens the finite and petty out…” (192)

For my part, I know that the next time I sit down with my daughters to draw or paint there will come this moment when we have settled into a nice quiet flow. I’m certain that I’ll look up and become aware of it too, and of the transience of life, and of the many possible ways that things could go after this moment, good or bad. I’ll start to worry if my daughters will grow up kind and compassionate, if I’m providing them with enough to help them on their way, or in what ways the world might disappoint them, or in what ways I might disappoint them knowingly or unknowingly. And the list goes on and on. And anxiety will surely be sitting on the periphery, as a reminder that the only reason I really worry about getting any of it right is because this is actually something worth fighting for.

“As hard it may seem to imagine, it’s a beautiful thing to have this feeling of existential anxiety, it is a sign that you are free in a very real sense, in a way it is you giving a damn about this life you live and the people you get to live it with.”

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.