Kierkegaard on the Value of Despair
By Maria Popova
“There is no love of life without despair of life,” Albert Camus wrote as he reckoned with the rudiments of happiness. “We hope. We despair. We hope. We despair. This is what governs us,” artist Maira Kalman observed in her illustrated chronicle of the pursuit of happiness.
To accept that there can be no happiness without despair is to recognize that, rather than a malady of the spirit, despair is the rudder course-correcting the ship of the self, steering it from the actual to the ideal.
That is what Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) explores in his characteristically grimly titled and characteristically deeply insightful 1849 book The Sickness Unto Death (public library), so radical in some of its ideas that he published it under a pseudonym.
For Kierkegaard, the spirit and the self are one and despair is a sickness in them — one exposing the gap between the self that is, the self that keeps us small, and the self that can be, the vast eternal self of full potentiation. With an eye to this spiritual sickness, he writes:
The self is a relation which relates to itself… A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity… A synthesis is a relation between two terms. Looked at in this way a human being is not yet a self.
Despair is the imbalance in a relation of synthesis, in a relation which relates to itself.
Considering the disruption of the self’s relation to itself as the root of despair, he traces the inner machinery of how it sets in:
If a person in despair is, as he thinks, aware of his despair and doesn’t refer to it mindlessly as something that happens to him… and wants now on his own, all on his own, and with all his might to remove the despair, then he is still in despair and through all his seeming effort only works himself all the more deeply into a deeper despair. The imbalance in despair is not a simple imbalance but an imbalance in a relation that relates to itself and which is established by something else. So the lack of balance in that for-itself relationship also reflects itself infinitely in the relation to the power which established it.
This then is the formula which describes the state of the self when despair is completely eradicated: in relating to itself and in wanting to be itself, the self is grounded transparently in the power that established it.
Kierkegaard observes that, on the surface, you always feel yourself despairing over something. But beneath that is really the self’s relation to that something, fomenting a desire to rid yourself of your self in order to expunge the negative feeling — which, Kierkegaard cautions, is an existential impossibility and, as such, sunders the spirit with despair:
The relation to himself is something a human being cannot be rid of, just as little as he can be rid of himself, which for that matter is one and the same thing, since the self is indeed the relation to oneself… With despair a fire takes hold in something that cannot burn, or cannot be burned up — the self… To despair over oneself, in despair to want to be rid of oneself, is the formula for all despair.
And yet in this very impossibility lies the life-affirming aspect of despair — it asserts our relation to the eternal. Having devoted his life to bridging the ephemeral and the eternal, Kierkegaard writes:
Despair is an aspect of spirit, it has to do with the eternal in a person. But the eternal is something he cannot be rid of, not in all eternity.
If there were nothing eternal in a man, he would simply be unable to despair… Having a self, being a self, is the greatest, the infinite, concession that has been made to man, but also eternity’s claim on him.
Complement with May Sarton on the cure for despair and a remedy for it from Gabriel Marcel and Nick Cave, then revisit Kierkegaard on how to save yourself, our greatest source of unhappiness (and what to do about it), and the only true cure for our existential emptiness.
Published June 10, 2023