In this exploration of the deeper aspects of human emotion and identity, we draw upon the profound insights of Søren Kierkegaard from his seminal work, ‘The Sickness Unto Death,’ to understand the true nature of despair in our everyday lives.
Have you ever felt a deep sense of loss or sadness over something in your life, like losing a job or a relationship ending? That feeling might be closer to despair than you realise. But what does despair really mean, especially when it’s tied to the everyday, worldly things we experience?
Despair, in the context of our day-to-day life, is often linked to how we react when things don’t go our way. Imagine living a life where your mood swings are completely controlled by what happens around you – whether you get that promotion, whether your friends invite you out, or even something as simple as your favourite team losing a game. In this scenario, your sense of self, your identity, is deeply entangled in these external events and circumstances.
This kind of life is what I like to call ‘surface-level living.’ It’s like skimming through a book without really absorbing the words. You’re influenced primarily by your emotions and desires, and your understanding of yourself is based on things like your career, your social status, or your relationships. It’s an existence where you’re constantly chasing after happiness or running away from misfortune, without stopping to reflect on who you really are beneath all these external layers.
Now, when something big and unexpected happens – like a sudden loss or an unexpected gain – it can shake up your world. But here’s the catch: even though you might feel like everything’s falling apart, this isn’t the true essence of despair. True despair goes deeper; it’s about losing something eternal, something that’s a fundamental part of who you are, which is far more significant than any external loss or gain.
The irony is that when you’re living at this surface level, you might claim to be in despair over losing something material or worldly. But in reality, you’re missing the point. It’s like standing with your back to a beautiful painting and trying to describe it. You’re talking about a form of despair that’s really just a reaction to immediate circumstances, not the deep, existential despair that challenges your very sense of self.
As time goes on, if things start looking up externally, you might feel like you’re coming out of this despair. You pick up where you left off, continuing your life without really having developed a deeper sense of who you are. On the other hand, if things don’t improve, you might find other ways to cope. You avoid thinking too deeply and focus instead on outward achievements and activities. Over the years, this avoidance becomes a habit, and you forget the deeper questions you once had about your life and identity.
In conversations, you might even joke about how you used to get worked up over small things, without realising that you’ve been skirting around the edges of a more profound despair all along. You become someone known for being practical and down-to-earth, praised for your ‘life wisdom.’ But underneath this veneer of practicality, there’s an avoidance of facing the deeper, more existential questions of life.
So, what’s the takeaway from all this? Despair over worldly matters isn’t just about feeling upset when things don’t go our way. It’s a sign that we’re living on the surface, without really engaging with the deeper aspects of who we are. It’s a wake-up call to start looking inward and exploring our true selves, beyond the external successes and failures we often get caught up in.
As we continue to delve into these timeless themes, I am diligently working on a new, modern translation of Kierkegaard’s ‘The Sickness Unto Death’ to fully capture and convey the subtle and profound insights within this work. I look forward to sharing it with you once it is complete.