Recently, I've been dealing with what one might term an 'existential crisis.' Thoughts about 'who am i' and 'what is my purpose' - as opposed to the grander 'why are we here' and 'what is humanity's purpose' questions - have been swirling around my head of late. I feel like my life has been somewhat a failure compared with my own ambitions. So, instead of muting these feelings with drugs or escaping into television, I am trying to make sense of some of my wild confusion with the sober words of Søren Kierkegaard.
Specifically, I've gone to Kierkegaard's The Sickness unto Death to illuminate the workings of depression, and see what worth they might provide. But first, a little background for those of you whom are not familiar with Kierkegaard or his works. Søren Kierkegaard was Danish and lived in Copenhagen from his birth in 1813 til his death 1855. He wrote upon many subjects, most notably Christianity and the individual's reality in the modern world. Because of his focus on true individual existence versus abstract theory, Kierkegaard is now widely considered the father of Existentialism, although that category of thought did not develop until the 1940s.
In The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard speaks of despair and its many forms and how if affects us. Early on, he asserts that one who is in despair, "...is bringing it upon himself." For one does not despair over the act or action that causes despair, but despairs over the state of himself. Which leads Kierkegaard to conclude that whenever that which causes one despair is present and despair occurs, "it is immediately apparent that he has been in despair his whole life."
Seemingly a bold statement, it makes sense when fully considered. It is not the inability to capture a dream that causes despair, but rather by being one who has not captured their dream is the cause for the despair. So, when Kierkegaard says that "he has been in despair his whole life" he is identifying that this despair is from and a part of the self, something that is always a part of us.
In this regard, Kierkegaard's theories of despair are quite similar to the Buddhist belief of suffering or Dukkha. The first of Buddhism's Four Noble Truths is quite simply, "Life is suffering." Like Kierkegaard, Buddhists believe that this disquietude is part of life. For the Buddhist, Dukkha can only be overcome through the Eightfold Path - a manner of losing attachments to our earthly desires. Kierkegaard would rather see this as another form of despair: In Despair Not to Will to Be Oneself: despair over his weakness. Rather than believing all our desires should be overcome, Kierkegaard would see this as pretending that these desires do not exist in ourselves. Just like we can be in despair our whole lives, but avoid that which causes us despair and not eliminate despair from within us, we also cannot eliminate our desires from the self by simply not acting upon them or vanquishing them from our thoughts. These desires live on in our souls, even when dormant.
It's this trait that defines Kierkegaard as an Existentialist. This refusal to see human existence in any other way, but that in which we experience it. Kierkegaard also refuses to prescribe any remedy to this despair. His aim is more to define and present our personal condition rather than attributing our sorrows to something evil and to be done away with. Kierkegaard instead believes that, "The opposite to being in despair is to have faith... in relating itself to itself and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it." Essentially, to overcome despair one must accept their self and want to be that self taking confidence from the faith that their self was made in the eyes of God. This means accepting our weakness and faults as our own, and, therefore, owning them as we do our strengths. In this way, instead of despairing over what we would like to be or wish we weren't, we are content with who we are. Kierkegaard's idea rests firmly in the faith that individuals do have good in our hearts, but succumb to selfish impulses. We must listen to our hearts (the soul, if you will) and not to the desires that fuel our despair. One must find and be the person that God has made us, both as the collective of humanity and as a unique individual.