“We would rather be ruined than changed;
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of our moment
And let our illusions die.”
– W.H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety
It seems that maladies of the spirit pervade the American landscape more than anything else these days. Certainly, a restless undercurrent of anxiety and despair festers all around us. Sad, anxious faces teem down our busy freeways on a daily basis with little fulfillment aside from endless distractions and antidepressants. How strange to even state that in this great land of ours. One is compelled to turn to traditions and philosophies that have withstood this onslaught of postmodernity.
One such example is the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard. Commonly referred to as the father of existentialism, he was also a masterful theologian. He is known for tackling anxiety and dread in the context of faith as evidenced by the titles of some of his works, such as “Fear and Trembling” and “The Concept of Anxiety.”
Kierkegaard argued that anxiety and dread are the consequence of the vast freedom inherent to existence.
He states in “The Concept of Anxiety”:
Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down the yawning abyss becomes dizzy…Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs to dizziness.
Heady stuff for sure. What the Danish philosopher is saying though is that freedom, in an existential sense, is akin to staring into a veritable pit of endless possibilities. Anxiety then becomes an understandable response given the vexing matter of choice in our lives. How can one choose without inevitably succumbing to an anxious dread? It seems only natural. No matter how careful or well-intentioned we try to be, none of us have the gift of foresight, and bad things happen to the best of us. No wonder anxiety accosts so many of us on a daily basis in our careers, our relationships, even while grocery shopping. It can lead to a kind of paralysis.
For Kierkegaard, the answer was found in the confidence only faith provides. Put more succinctly, the antidote against the fatiguing anxiety of choice and consequence resides in the eternal hope we only find in God, not in any kind of worldly hope or pursuit.
However, trust and faith in God is not some passive choice, but very much an active one we must continually make, according to Kierkegaard.
From Kierkegaard’s Religion, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Faith [for Kierkegaard] is the most important task to be achieved by a human being, because only on the basis of faith does an individual have a chance to become a true self. This self is the life-work which God judges for eternity…But the choice of faith is not made once and for all. It is essential that faith be constantly renewed by means of repeated avowals of faith. One’s very selfhood depends upon this repetition…
And elsewhere, from “Kierkegaard and Faith”:
Authentic faith is an active faith in that the movements of faith are chosen again and again. Active faith is for the individual in his or her own solitude to find meaning. Inauthentic faith is inactive and complacent. Complacent faith is faith for comfort’s sake.
In other words, for faith to fortify us against the various spiritual maladies that hound us, we cannot succumb to lip service in relation to God. More importantly, we cannot treat our relationship with God as some mere ornament of affection and worship.
If we are to be freed from the shackles of despair, we must pursue faith with diligence and wholesome discipline, not apathy or disdain. Only then does our trust in God’s will become a fortification against the endless parade of anxiety and despair that surrounds us. We are no longer burdened or vexed by the consequences of our choices great and small. Instead, we reside in God’s mercy and forgiveness. It’s hard to imagine a greater, more blissful sense of freedom than this.