This is a paper I wrote in 2011 for my RELS 465 Influential Christian Thinkers class based on Soren Kierkegaard’s “Sickness Unto Death”. Enjoy!
Here’s the thing about despair – when in its worst form you are unaware of it, or, you are at least unaware of its true source. This is where I was not too long ago. We go about our lives thinking we have it all figured out, thinking we have the perfect ‘flight plan,’ – at least I did. The plan was to go to school to get good grades to get a career to get enough money to get more stuff – ‘comfortable self-preservation,’ as John Locke calls it, and I knew it was my right. However, the dream of one day achieving this comfortable lifestyle was not enough; I wanted to have it now – and even if I couldn’t have the full package, I wanted at least a taste and I realized in that case I couldn’t simply be a ‘starving student’ I would have to get money, and the only way to get money was to get a job.
See, I wasn’t happy, and yet, I knew it was my right to be happy and it was my right to acquire such happiness in virtually any way that I could, or so I thought. Why wasn’t I happy to begin with? Well, there was the multitude of broken hearts throughout high school, the moving from here to there and back again, the uncountable number of goodbyes – really, if I wanted to find a source for my unhappiness, I had a large pile to pick from; but were any of those things the true source? Well, let’s just say I didn’t get to the point where I had to ask myself this until I had exhausted all other options.
See, the way Kierkegaard puts it, we are all born into sickness, we are all born into despair, but we don’t know it. Or, at least we don’t know until it is made so obvious to us that it can’t be ignored, and then the question is, what do we do about it? As a child, I didn’t know I was in despair, and even through adolescence, middle school, and into the beginning of high school I had no clue. Then one day I woke up to a broken heart and found myself derailed and in a panic trying to figure out what had happened to my comfortable life. I would spend the next several years blaming my desperate state on the ‘downs’ of life (as mentioned before): the breakups, the goodbyes, and every other sad moment in between. Kierkegaard would say that I was ignorant of my despair – aware of its existence, but unsure of its source – and that’s exactly what it was. I would try different ways to ‘fix’ myself; I would get new boyfriends, new shoes, new hair colours, a whole new image, and when that didn’t work I would resort to distraction – television, shopping, partying, more boys. However, the distractions, much like when you pinch a baby’s arm to lessen the pain of an injection, only worked as temporary fixes – driving my attention away for a moment, but in the long run I was still able to feel the tenderness and bruising long after the pinch was done. I became so anxious, so uncomfortable in my own skin, in my own life, that I became self-destructive; I was careless with my life because to me life was pain and therefore wasn’t anything to be valued at all. Yet, though none of my actions implied it, I was still afraid of death. It was as though I knew there was something I was missing, something that still needed to be found and experienced before my story could come to a close; therefore, the thought of putting an end to my story before it was truly over frightened me and so I continued to stumble around in despair.
I stumbled around for awhile and then when I was twenty-one I experienced despair in its deepest and purest form. No longer was I trying to distract myself; instead, I was simply numbing. At the time I thought what I was numbing was the aftermath of multiple heartbreaks and rejections, but the truth is, I simply couldn’t live with myself. However, rather than confronting myself and figuring out why this was the case, I chose to neglect and abuse myself instead. And it was then that I found myself confronted by that most serious of questions: to be, or not to be?
To be or not to be? TO BE OR NOT TO BE?
I wanted so deeply to put an end to my suffering. I wanted so deeply for it to all be over, but, more than that, I wanted so deeply to figure out what it was I had been missing all along. And so I chose to be.
I chose to pick myself back up on my feet, to pull myself up out of despair, and to stop my self-destruction. I started eating again, I ended my relationship with bulimia, and told myself that I could do it, that I was strong enough, and I depended on friends and family to help me through. I also turned it over to God, knowing that only through Him could I find the strength I needed to keep from slipping away into an abyss. But this isn’t the end of my story, nor is it the end of my despair. See, Kierkegaard makes it clear that in order to love the other, one must love God, and, most importantly, in order to love God, one must love herself – and I didn’t love myself. However, I wasn’t ready to deal with that, so I slipped right back in to the cycle: distractions, numbing, denial.
It is important to understand that my despair was different at this point. Unlike before, I knew I needed God but what I didn’t realize was that although I had handed my life over to Him, in reality I wasn’t actually in a relationship with Him; I thought that I was, but I really wasn’t. Why? Because I didn’t love myself yet. See, in order to love oneself, Kierkegaard says, one must confront herself – and that was something I wasn’t ready to do. Once again I chose distractions and what better way to distract than by focusing on the pursuit of happiness, the pursuit of comfortable self-preservation. During this time, consumerism was the most appealing and my credit card became my best friend. Stuff – I needed more stuff, that’s what was missing from my life, that’s why I wasn’t OK. I was unhappy because my clothes didn’t fit, and I could never stick to this ‘recovery’ thing if I was unhappy because my clothes didn’t fit. Buying new clothes that fit, now that would help keep me on track, that would keep me from wanting to starve myself. And so I shopped – but I still wasn’t happy. And so I would shop some more. There is something numbing about being in a mall and wandering through a store, gently touching every piece of clothing, trying things on, focusing so intently on building the perfect outfit and then feeling the rush of excitement when you find the perfect shoes and bracelets to match. Fashion takes so much focus; in the pursuit of fashion, there is no time to pursue self-knowledge.
Then one day I came home, hands filled with bags, and I was confronted by the piles of new clothing on my bed, the box of shoes that hadn’t even been opened yet, and the shopping bags and receipts that littered my floor – all this stuff, this stuff that was supposed to make me happy, and I broke down. I had maxed out my credit card! Now what was I supposed to do? I felt empty and out of control – and I hated being out of control. I needed to get back into control, I needed to go back to being healthy, and, yes, there was that little whisper reminding me that I needed a relationship with God – but I knew I had one, I had just become distracted from it by my shopping and my financial situation, once I sorted that out I could go back to being God’s friend. So I focused on the exact things that Kierkegaard warns us about, the diversions: consumerism, careerism, busyness. I needed that comfortable self-preservation John Locke spoke so highly of and I was willing to sacrifice whatever it took to get it.
I entered into my second semester of second year with three jobs, one of which was at a clothing store. With a fifty percent discount, now I didn’t have to feel so bad about spending money on clothing because I was only paying half what anybody else was. Every day was scheduled with work and homework – I didn’t have time for family, barely had time for friends, had little time for God, and no time for me. Was I happy? Well, I thought so; I was making money, starting to pay off my bills, I had a closet full of new clothes that fit me, I had three great jobs that I was good at – yes, I was content. It was at this point when I reached the most serious condition: I was in despair, but I didn’t know it.
And then January came around, a new year, a new semester, and I sat down at my desk and was told to open a book entitled “The Sickness Unto Death” – everything was about to change.
I began reading about this thing called ‘sickness’ that Kierkegaard talked about, this sickness in which the soul is in despair, deep, and bitter despair that, unless healed, is unto death. This sickness, he explains, is caused by inner turmoil in the soul – a sense of emptiness and despair that so often, just like in the case of my life, people choose to paint over and to ignore. Rather than confronting the sickness and working towards a cure, we instead choose to numb it with temporary topical creams and to distract ourselves from it with pinches of consumerism, careerism, money, success, sex, alcohol, drugs, eating disorders – anything that will take our mind off the true source of our pain. Imagine going to a doctor with a knife stuck in your forehead and having him suggest you go to the mall to distract yourself from the pain, or saying that really all you need is to find someone who loves you then it won’t matter that you have a knife protruding from your head. Or, even more insanely, imagine if he suggested you start doing cocaine, or stop eating, or start cutting yourself, so that you can destroy yourself and beat the knife to it. Is that not almost laughable? Is that not the most ridiculous concept? And yet, that is exactly what we do. That is exactly what I did. And I can’t help but laugh at it now.
Kierkegaard makes it clear that distracting or numbing yourself or ignoring the despair is not the cure – all it does is give more time for the knife that is stabbing into your soul to cause the utmost damage possible and leave an infection that becomes more extreme and more dangerous with each day that you let it stay there without doing anything about it. And yet, there is a cure. The Bible makes it clear; Jesus said that this sickness is not unto death. It doesn’t have to be. But, just like the knife, you have to be willing to do something about it and you have to be willing to take the medicine, the antibiotics needed to cure the infection. Jesus is that cure. You have to love God to cure your despair; however, as Kierkegaard says, in order to love God you must first love yourself. And how do you do that? Well, in life, when a woman is looking for love, looking for ‘the other’, she does not fall in love on first meeting, knowing nothing of his character; instead, she falls in love through spending time with him and getting to know him – that is how love works. So in order to love yourself, you must spend time with yourself, you must get to know yourself, and, if you don’t like what you see (which is more than often the case) you have to be prepared to change that. Just as the object of the woman’s affection, if she pointed out she does not like the way he speaks to her sometimes, he has a choice – he could continue speaking to her in that offensive way and, most likely, lose her love, or he could change the way he speaks to her, which would in turn allow her love for him to grow even stronger. Therefore, when going through the ever important journey of learning to love yourself, at each point that you find something about yourself that is ‘unlovable’ you have to do something about it, you have to change, otherwise you will lose your own love.
It takes work to gain self-knowledge and it takes even more work to learn to love yourself once you have acquired it and that is why it is so tempting to avoid the situation all together, to avoid acquiring self-knowledge, or, once you have acquired it and realized that you are in fact not perfect, to avoid going through the process of changing yourself to be someone who is loveable and worthy of your own self-respect. This is where I was; I attempted acquiring self-knowledge only to realize I couldn’t live with myself and I didn’t like myself. However, instead of doing something about it, I took the easy road, distracting myself with stuff, work, friends, romance, and partying. However, because I never put in the work to change the things I did not like about myself I never did fully love myself, which made me, as Kierkegaard explains, unable to fully love God, and because I was unable to love God I found my soul lovesick and empty and I was in despair and I didn’t know why I was in this despair until I was confronted by Kierkegaard himself. He woke me up. That is what we all need to do – we all need to be woken up, and then, once we are awakened to not only the reality of our despair but also to the source of it, we have to do something about it.
And so what did I do? I quit my job. I realized that the only reason I was keeping my job was so I could get cheap clothing, but then, since my eyes were finally opened, I realized that having another pair of jeans was not going to make me happy, I realized that having an extra few dollars in my bank account was not going to make me happy, and I realized that I wasn’t going to love myself more just because I had a job that I was good at. I also realized that I was empty, and no money or clothing or man was going to fill that emptiness. For the first time in my life I realized that the only way to fill that emptiness was with God and I realized that although I had felt all along that I was in relationship with Him, I actually wasn’t because I didn’t love myself. So I did exactly what Kierkegaard said I needed to do, I reflected on my life – where it was, where it had been, and where it was going – and I gathered up the facts of who I was and instead of distracting myself because I didn’t like what I was seeing or where I was headed, I confronted myself head-on and started changing the things I didn’t like, I started loving myself, and, in turn, loving God. Everything changed after that. Kierkegaard was right – entering in to a relationship with God is the only cure to the sickness.
Acquiring self-knowledge and learning to love your self is like being reborn. You are like a newborn that needs to learn what it means to be alive, how to walk, how to talk, and even how to breathe. I can’t help but think of the Switchfoot song “Learning to Breathe,” in which they say:
I could use a fresh beginning too / all of my regrets are nothing new / so this is the way that I say I need You / this is the way that I’m learning to breathe / I’m learning to crawl … I’m living again / awake and alive.
That is curing the sickness. That is acquiring the self-knowledge that leads to loving yourself and then to loving God. It’s a fresh start – learning to breathe, learning to crawl, learning what you really need.
And so, would I say I regret ever having this sickness, that I regret my moments of despair – even the deepest and darkest ones? How could I? Because it is through these moments and through this sickness that I’ve learnt to love myself and as well as God. As Helen Keller puts it, “I thank God for my handicaps because through them I have found myself…and my God,” and this is exactly how I feel. How could one regret the very thing that brought the greatest healing to their life? The sickness of despair is the very thing that gifts us with not only self-love, but the ability to love God and so it is necessary. This is why we are all born into despair, because it is necessary for us to acknowledge our sickness, learn to love ourselves, and then heal our souls through an eternal loving relationship with God. We can all learn something from Pascal who prays for this very type of sickness – this sickness that, if we are open to and persevere through the healing process, brings us closer to God than we could ever imagine and gives us not just a temporary distraction or cure for the pain, but an eternal one. Who could regret that?
So now, thanks to Kierkegaard for pointing me in the right direction, I am entering in to this freedom from despair, and, though life will not be perfect, I know that no moment of trial or darkness or sickness of the soul will lead me back in to despair because finally I am awake.