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.


I recently wrote about our modern tendency to be overly busy, using as my jumping-off point reviews of Brigid Schulte’s book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. I noted in particular the self-importance that often underlies many overly packed schedules.

Busy busy busy. Illustration from The New Yorker.

Busy busy busy. Illustration from The New Yorker.

I subsequently read an article by Elizabeth Kolbert that provides a historical context for our busyness. She describes a 1928 essay by economist John Maynard Keynes titled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.” Keynes expected that, in the century to follow, technological innovation would result in huge economic gains. Thus, by 2028, the standard of living would be so improved that no one would need to be concerned with obtaining necessities. He believed that the grandchildren alluded to by his title would work only about three hours a day, and even that amount would be more than was necessary. For Keynes, the problem facing future generations would be how to spend all the leisure time they would have. Keynes envisioned that the size of the global economy would increase seven-fold in the 100 years to come. We’re now 76 years into that century, and the U.S. gross domestic product has grown six-fold.

So, why was Keynes right about our increased prosperity but wrong about our leisure time? Economists have wondered the same thing. Kolbert describes the answers given by several of them in a book devoted to the topic (Revisiting Keynes, edited by Lorenzo Pecchi and Gustavo Piga, two Italian economists).

Frankly, none of the answers are convincing. Material consumption is habit-forming and people get accustomed to a certain level, thus they always want more, goes one answer. But the bump in happiness produced by purchases is highly transient. Shouldn’t we have figured out by now how little we benefit from pushing ourselves to be able to afford the next big thing? Society shapes our choices, and we don’t see beyond the habits we’ve been taught; so says another answer. Why would society shape our choices in the direction of ever-increasing busyness, though? The explanation seems circular—if we do something, society must have caused it, otherwise why would we be doing it?

The answer that seems most promising is that we work even though we don’t have to because work adds meaning to our lives. In a previous post making a similar point, I described the Christian notion that work is central to what it means to be human. In the Genesis account, God instructed the man and woman he created to work in the garden where he placed them. Work became more onerous after the fall, but remained central to human activity.

Does the importance of work for human identity mean we need to overwork ourselves to the point of exhaustion, though? The Biblical ideal is Practice Resurrectionnot constant work but a balance between work and rest. In Practice Resurrection, Eugene Peterson suggests that the call for humans to work has been distorted by the secularist, who romanticizes work. Peterson describes this view as follows:

“Work is romanticized when it is understood as a way to be significant, to become well known, to make a lot of money, to ‘make a contribution.’ Romanticized work tends to be glamorized work. Romanticized work relies heavily on payoffs, whether in salary and stock options, in recognition and prominence, or in ‘job satisfaction’ and ‘fulfilled potential.’” (p. 104)

In other words, romanticized work is about self-aggrandizement. The focus isn’t on meaning derived from doing good in the world. It’s on meaning in an individual sense, namely how good or smart or clever I prove myself to be. Overwork is appealing when every extra accomplishment enhances my positive feeling about myself. The temptation is to work assiduously on expanding my kingdom while neglecting God’s kingdom. That’s a strategy destined for failure!

national poetry month


Babes and beasts alike pay little heed
to time’s progress–its clattering or stealth.
Attending to the clock becomes a need
only after I’ve become a self.

It’s National Poetry Month, so I figured I should try to rouse my creative energies enough to produce a poem or two.  I wrote the brief verse above early in the month, and thought that was all I would do.  Last night, though, I managed another effort:



My father, shouldering the gravity of years

grips the handles like an ancient farmer

bent to his plow.  His walker, an insensate

mule, pulls him through the ruts

to the stations of his life—

commode, recliner, wheelchair, bed.

Meanwhile I visit the gymnasium’s altars—

Nautilus. elliptical, and stationary bike.  Why

do I imagine that the sacrifices offered there

will give me any different end?

Two poems in 30 days–that’s better than my combined output of zero for the year to this point.  I can’t wait to see what I’ll do for next year’s National Poetry Month!