A Contemporary Interpretation of The Sickness unto Death
In his book The Sickness unto Death, existential thinker Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) addresses an issue that is alarmingly relevant to the contemporary American society. He chillingly insists that, we all suffer from “despair”. (The word is etymologically derived from Latin word dēspērāre, meaning “without hope”, and the root word spērāre, “hope”, is etymologically related to Latin word spīritus, meaning “breath” or “spirit”. With reference to this, “despair” is expressive of “lack of spirit”.) Kierkegaard warns us,
“. . . [T]here is not one single living human being who does not despair a little, who does not secretly harbor an unrest, an inner strife, a disharmony, an anxiety about an unknown something or a something he does not even dare to try to know, an anxiety about some possibility in existence or an anxiety about himself, . . . a sickness of the spirit that signals its presence at rare intervals in and through an anxiety he cannot explain.”
Stipulating that despair is lack of spirit, then what is “spirit”? According to Kierkegaard, the human “self” (possibly derived from Sanskrit word sva, meaning “one’s own”) is a synthesis of the “infinite” and the “finite”. What does that mean? Simply put, the self is a tension between “possibility” and “necessity”; the self is a relation between our desire for “freedom” and our recognition of the brutal “necessity” of our everyday existence which negates our ambitions. The self is this tensive relation “relating itself to itself”. Kierkegaard writes:
“A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way, a human being is still not a self.” (Bolds added for emphasis.)
“Still not a self” because the relation is still antithetical or is not achieved yet. This living and breathing contradiction or “misrelation” of the self that is not yet a self creates a condition that Kierkegaard calls “the sickness unto death”—which is “despair”. Kierkegaard states that despair, as the sickness of the self, takes three forms: (1) “in [unconscious] despair not to be conscious of having a self”, (2) “in [conscious] despair not to will to be a self”, and (3) “in [conscious] despair to will to be oneself”. In the book, Kierkegaard seems to suggest that the second form of despair is the most common. However, in our age, the first form of despair is, perhaps, the most ubiquitous, i.e., the despair that is unaware of being despair. Indeed, the book can be a rude awakening to those who think are immune to despair. In any case, it is important to recognize that for Kierkegaard despair is not something that a psychologist can cure us of it, for, in a strict sense, it is neither a mood, nor a psychological state. A psychologist cannot cure us of it because this despair constitutes the self; the self is this despairing relation; despair is our way of being; we are it!
Kierkegaard insists that in a particular sense the sickness unto death is not biological death. Conversely, the agony of this despair is specifically the “inability to die”. This despair is the hopelessness of not being able to die—even when we wish it! Suicide will not help this type of despair. Kierkegaard writes:
“Literally speaking, there is not the slightest possibility that anyone will die from this sickness or that it will end in physical death. On the contrary, the torment of despair is precisely this inability to die. Thus to be sick unto death is to be unable to die, yet not as if there were hope of life; no, the hopelessness is that there is not even the ultimate hope, death. When death is the greatest danger, we hope for life; but when we learn to know the even greater danger [i.e., despair as sickness of the spirit], we hope for death. When the danger [i.e., the despair] is so great that death becomes the hope, then despair is the hopelessness of not even being able to die.”
When life becomes a bitter drink, then death begins to appear as a sweet medicine! What can one do when existing becomes unbearable within the framework of the second type of despair (i.e., “in [conscious] despair not to will to be a self”)? When the thorns of one’s soul rip through one’s flesh and skin at nights while asleep, what can one do? How does one kill oneself? The thought itself is utterly horrifying: the agonizing decision, the quivering squeeze, the excruciating pain, the nauseous blood, the cold silence, and the devastating news that invades the ears of those who care. An initial problem seems to be that one who wishes to kill oneself becomes more afraid, after premeditating on death and dying, of the physical pain that may precede death than the death itself, not to mention the psychological pain of abandonment of one’s ethical responsibilities toward others, in addition to one’s memories of the loved ones that may linger during the death-struggle that might be infinitesimally short or significantly long. It is unsettling when the anxiety of death itself becomes pregnant with an image of itself, reflecting on itself and, hence, engendering more pains and uncertainties. One would hope that suicide would put an end to additional possibilities of pain and uncertainty before departure. On the contrary, an eccentric facet of suicide is that it adds to the burden of already established pains and uncertainties that have pushed one to the edge. Kierkegaard writes, “. . . [D]eath is indeed the expression for the state of deepest spiritual wretchedness, and yet the cure is simply to die, to die to the world.” It is not suicide that kills one’s spirit, but self-pity, lack of courage, and loss of self-worth.
Nowadays, our consciousness is extensively shaped and framed by the tele-cyber-communication and the powerful images thrown at us by the mass media. In this highly televised, commercialized, and commodified culture in the United States, these images serve to psychologically condition us into particular ways of emoting, thinking, and behaving. The everyday, simulated images have become more real than what the images actually imitate. The late president Ronald Regan serves as an example in point. He was more of an image rather than an actual person. He was magnificent as an icon, and that was his public persona. What was important about him was his iconic significance. To the citizens, his televised image was more real than real. The same principle also applies to celebrities such as Madonna who has sold us not music per se, but an image. We have become accustomed to to be an image rather than an actual person. Adopting an image for oneself has become of more value than cultivating character. In our society, images are more valuable than real persons; images have gained higher realities than the things they simulate.
These images are extremely fashionable in a society where self-identity has become a matter of fashion. Under the current social malady, one is compelled to need something other than oneself in order to be oneself. If one lacks self-identity, he can buy one, for example, at a shopping mall. This is the despair that Kierkegaard refers to. Our identities are prepackaged and given to us by the commercial system that keeps spreading the same disease around the globe. Our contemporary mass culture is based on unreflected sensations, spectacles, images that are socially employed to mold us.
In this totally commercialized and commodified culture, it is not easy to know whether one has adopted a fashion or one has actually developed as an authentic person. Consider the all-too-common phenomenon whereby a person one day becomes an avid follower of Christ, then next day of Buddha, followed by becoming a member of a Kabbalah cult; and then at the end of the line, still feeling empty and unfulfilled, the person whimsically decides to make a visit to a local department store in order to purchase luxuries that render the person even more oblivious of her or his self-deficiencies. A person who is impulsively driven to this extreme to find a meaning in life, her or his condition is “sickness unto death”. To be in the situation wherein we are unable to die is no more or less than the cycle of our boring daily lives which are devoid of projects other than pleasing our employers, shopping, counting calories, losing weight, watching TV, and the like.
“Is despair”, Kierkegaard asks, “an excellence or a defect?” He replies, “Purely dialectically, it is both.” In a sense, for him, despair itself is not the problem, for it is, as it were, a structure of the self, built into the self. However, not overcoming the despair is the problem. Ironically, it is not healthy never to suffer the sickness of despair, and it is unhealthy not to overcome it. Kierkegaard writes, “The possibility of this sickness is man’s superiority over the animal, and this superiority distinguishes him in quite another way than does his erect walk, for it indicates infinite erectness or sublimity, that he is spirit.” Kierkegaard advises that to overcome despair and to become a self is a project, a difficult task that takes “passion” and commitment in the self reflecting on its own relation to itself.
“The self is the conscious synthesis of infinitude and finitude that relates itself to itself, whose task is to become itself. . . . To become oneself is to become concrete. But to become concrete is neither to become finite nor to become infinite, for that which is to become concrete is indeed a synthesis. Consequently, the progress of the becoming must be an infinite moving away from itself in the infinitizing of the self, and an infinite coming back to itself in the finitizing process. But if the self does not become itself, it is in despair, whether it knows that or not. Yet every moment that a self exists, it is in a process of becoming, for the self Κατα δυναμιν [in potentiality] does not actually exist, is simply that which ought to come into existence. Insofar, then, as the self does not become itself, it is not itself; but not to be itself is precisely despair.”