Kierkegaard On Using Existential Anxiety to One’s Advantage

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher, theologian, and social critic who is often described as the father of existentialism. Kierkegaard wrote on many subjects ranging from religion to ethics and to psychology.

Through his writings, Kierkegaard continuously touched upon the concepts of anxiety and despair, highlighting the agonizing nature of anxiety. Still Kierkegaard didn’t consider this state something to be avoided, instead he held that one could not live an authentic life without being grappled by anxiety.

Kierkegaard described anxiety as the dizziness of freedom, that of crippling possibility, of the boundlessness of one’s existence, he writes:

Anxiety is a qualification of dreaming spirit, and as such it has its place in psychology. Awake, the difference between myself and my other is posited; sleeping, it is suspended; dreaming, it is an intimated nothing. The actuality of the spirit constantly shows itself as a form that tempts its possibility but disappears as soon as it seeks to grasp for it, and it is a nothing that can only bring anxiety. More it cannot do as long as it merely shows itself. [Anxiety] is altogether different from fear and similar concepts that refer to something definite, whereas anxiety is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility.

Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. 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. Further than this, psychology cannot and will not go. In that very moment everything is changed, and freedom, when it again rises, sees that it is guilty. Between these two moments lies the leap, which no science has explained and which no science can explain. He who becomes guilty in anxiety becomes as ambiguously guilty as it is possible to become.

Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety isn’t an easy read, but it’s rich with lessons on human nature and existence making it worthy of a dozen reads. Throughout the book he argues that anxiety isn’t the enemy, it isn’t something that we ought to rid our existence from, although in his opinion even trying to do so would be futile:

Anxiety is an alien power which lays hold of the individual, and yet cannot tear oneself away, nor has a will to do so; for one fears, but what one fears one desires.

Not only is anxiety necessary, but it can also be quite beneficial. Anxiety is a manifestation of our realization of our capabilities, our power, our choices and decisions. When we become crippled by our decision making, we understand our power, and by that we become more capable as human beings.

Kierkegaard utters a statement we all can relate to:

Anxiety is potentially present at every instant.

And in his journals, Kierkegaard writes:

All existence make me anxious, from the smallest fly to the mysteries of the Incarnation; the whole thing is inexplicable to me, I myself most of all; to me all existence is infected, I myself most of all.

Surely, anxiety can feel like hell for so many people, leading them to pursue various therapies and medications to treat it. But some would find it more beneficial to use anxiety to their favor, understanding it and benefiting from it.

Kierkegaard considered anxiety to be a prescription for humanity to be saved. When one is anxious, one is informed of his choices, his self-awareness and responsibility, bringing him from a state of unself-conscious immediacy to self-conscious reflection. Although anxiety can be crippling and dreadful, if understood it can become a recognition of one’s true being and freedom.Kierkegaard explains:

Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate. … Anxiety is freedom’s possibility, and only such anxiety is through faith absolutely educative, because it consumes all finite ends and discovers all their deceptiveness. And no Grand Inquisitor has such dreadful torments in readiness as anxiety has, and no secret agent knows as cunningly as anxiety to attack his suspect in his weakest moment or to make alluring the trap in which he will be caught, and no discerning judge understands how to interrogate and examine the accused as does anxiety, which never lets the accused escape, neither through amusement, nor by noise, nor during work, neither by day nor by night.

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