I’m interested in the sense of self most of us develop by the time we reach adulthood. A developed sense of self is an achievement that provides direction and meaning. It is also a challenge to maintain and a burden that occasions distress.

kierkegaardI’ve been particularly interested in 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s writings about the self. He writes in The Sickness Unto Death about despair, which he conceives of as an ongoing condition, one that occurs in one’s relation to oneself. We can despair in two ways, according to Kierkegaard. First, a person can wish to be rid of him- or herself, that is, can be unwilling to be oneself, a condition that Kierkegaard calls “the despair of weakness.” Second, the person can despair to be a self, that is, can despair because one desires to be a self that one cannot be, a condition referred to as “the despair of defiance.”

How does it happen that someone fails to be a self? To be a self is to be continuously dependent on God, and most individuals don’t do this. What does it mean to desire to be a self that one cannot be? The self we are is never complete, never full of all that we desire and devoid of all we dread or despise. For Kierkegaard, everyone is in a condition of despair.

Kierkegaard describes various ways that humans can be in despair. He asserts that each human is a synthesis of opposing elements: the infinite and the finite, the temporal and the eternal, and freedom and necessity. When the person is not relating properly to God, these elements get out of balance. Kierkegaard describes four such possibilities, found in two dualities: infinitude-finitude and possibility-necessity. These can be characterized as follows:

  • The despair of infinitude consists of over-involvement with the fantastical and loss of a sense of finiteness; as such, the person does not have the proper relationship of finite self to infinite God.
  • The despair of finitude involves loss of a sense of the infinite, so the person becomes “desperately narrow minded and mean-spirited.”
  • The despair of possibility involves an openness to possibility, but a neglect of necessity, so that more and more becomes possible, but nothing ever becomes actual. In pursuit of one’s own possibilities, there is no awareness that all possibilities are of God.
  • The despair of necessity involves loss of a sense of possibility, as in the fatalist or social conformist. The person fails to realize that, “With God, all things are possible.”

For a number of years I’ve been thinking of social trends as manifestations of one or another form of despair. Take for example the ways in which smart phones, social media, and the excess of information available to us have changed not only how we live each day but how we see ourselves. In his book Present Shock, Douglas Ruskoff talks about the phenomenon of time being compressed into the present. “Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always-on. It’s not a mere speeding up… It’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now—and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.”

So the past and future are diminished in importance, and the present is gorged with the overflow of constantly changing real-time information. How do these changes in our experience of time change our quest to be ourselves, though? If past and future are diminished, so are our births and deaths. The present swells until it seems eternal, as does our sense of ourselves in time. That would be the despair of infinitude. Who we were last year or last week or yesterday ceases to matter. We can reinvent ourselves in the present moment, then do it again in the next moment, and the next, and on and on. That’s a form of the despair of possibility.

But of course we are unable to attend to each moment of the eternal present. We sleep, we get distracted, the real world draws us away from the virtual world. Even when we do attend, we can only register a fraction of the information available to us. The fear of missing out isn’t just a possiblity; it is a reality we live in every day. That seems to be the despair of finitude. The new selves that we reinvent always seems to be swallowed up by the old selves we thought we were leaving behind. That’s the despair of necessity.

I don’t mean to reduce this or any other social trend to merely the despair of the self. Our self-definitions matter tremendously, though, so I think it’s useful to examine the various components of our daily existence in terms of how they shape and are shaped by our self-definitions. I’ll be on the alert for other aspects of life to look at through the lens that Kierkegaard provides for understanding ourselves.