Existential despair and Soren Kierkegaard (& blog update)
Sometimes I try to express the thoughts that come into my mind and fail miserably. Is my view of the world quite so different to that of others? When I talk to others it would seem to be so. I don’t anymore have the attachment to interests society upholds as the purposes of our lives, in quite the way I used to. I guess I mean the projects I have are ones that align from within, rather than doings things for the sake of looking good, success, etc. For eg, I’m not desperate for socialising, getting one up on the neighbours, or gaining people’s respect.
This game that we play, I saw how it wasn’t really me, yet I was playing it. Then the illusions of this worldly life just collapsed, and revealing what lay beneath.
When existential despair hits me it is like when a sudden downpour might come raining down. Usually it is when I am totally out of kilter with alignment with myself within, ie when I am refusing to be myself and wanting to be something other. This could be in a social setting where I am having to play the game without respite, or when I am living in my head without sensitivity. The sense I have is of deep meaningless, despair and sometimes depression. These are not pyschological – I know that. I have experienced feelings of low-ness which are caused by life’s circumstances, but this is not the same. This is something that you just know has nothing to do with worldly life. And as such there is no pill, relationship, holiday, spending spree or anything else that will fix it. It is an extremely lonely place because it is to do with our very existence or being.
But again, existential loneliness is not the same as the loneliness which one might feel due to an absence of a partner. I don’t feel the latter anymore – not for some years (though a close friend and companion would be great if it can fit in with my busy life!) – no, this type of loneliness is instrinsic, and I believe it is felt by all. That’s why you often hear people say things like ‘I’d hate to be alone’ or ‘I hate being alone’. There is obviously a sense of loneliness there but it is not explored, it is resisted and escaped. But despite our efforts, one can be lonely in a happy enough marriage (and many are). You can be unhappy when there is no cause you can pinpoint. This is the nature of existential unhappiness.
“…the dread in a spiritless person is recognizable precisely in his spiritless sense of security. Beneath it lies dread all the same, and also beneath it lies despair, and when the spell of illusion is broken, when life begins to quake, then it is immediately apparent that despair was what was lying beneath.” – Soren Kierkegaard
So then what happens? Then you see this deepest layer of the human condition that is ordinarily expertly resisted in our everyday lives. And that’s why I called this post existential despair. It is entirely possible that the basic human condition is one of this existential predicament. And if it is so, then the game makes sense.
The start of true consciousness for me
The state of inner awareness and despair started at a young age – I only recognize that now in later life. As a child I was always rather idealistic about people and the world – I could see such possibility yet reality always fell far short. Hypocritical behaviour made me angry and more so because those engaging in it felt so unconcerned by the impact of it on others and the world. I always felt on the outside looking in. I wanted to set the world right, and couldn’t see why others didn’t feel the same concern. I was pretty intense.
Over the years I just coped with the demands of daily life, home-making, marriage, kids, doing a ‘good’ job of trying to make myself happy, or at least seeming so. Then, with some life’s challenges, the shell cracked and the illusions I was holding onto to keep the lid on, collapsed. At the crux point some seven years ago, when life’s illusions collapsed good and proper, due to some subsequent seemingly mystical experiences, I called what had happened a spiritual awakening or Truth (with a big T), and was even interviewed a few times due to these experiences. It seems that spiritual awakening has become a revered goal. (Funny but I just typed ‘gaol’ twice – Freudian slip?). But I was not ready for full-on honesty still. Despite the bliss experiences I had definitely had.
I followed the Advaita / non-dual pathway in recent years but this ended up being just another layer over the deepest layer, that had been revealed to me. I had very profound experiences of joy and bliss but this deeper existential angst and absurdity did not just disappear, although it is only recently that I feel real understanding arise from within my own depths, about what really happened and what I really am – and am not.
Existential despair or depression is not psychological
Existential despair or existential depression is not psychological depression. It is a sense of meaninglessness resulting from the very core of our being and it pertains to the very nature of our existence, when all belief systems and religions are set aside. It’s like a deep sense of the smallness of one’s life in the vastness of everything, a sense of the absurdity of the lives we live, a pointlessness. It’s like falling in an absurd abyss. It’s when the illusions of life collapse.
Psychological depression is usually related to life and its specific circumstances (loss of a relationship, loved one, a job) or to past experiences (regrets, painful events). However sometimes we can be experiencing existential depression whilst not understanding this – for eg, if circumstances pressing down on us get better yet we continue to feel a deeper angst.
The self is a verb rather than a noun
The trouble is that until we start to question more deeply, until we become sensitive and willing to see beyond our belief systems and enculturation, we may continue to be confused about ourselves and our concerns. In this way we first lose ourselves and in fact run away from ourselves. It is the finding of the self where the challenge occurs, and we must face who we are – and who we are not. This is the other way around to non-dual teachings that say one must lose the ego-self. Yes, the ego must be separated from, but the problem is not necessarily that one is attached to ego (although one is for sure), but the problem is the refusal to be oneself‘ as Soren Kierkegaard called it. And just to clarify my understanding of how Kierkegaard saw the self – it was more as a verb than a noun – it’s a matter of relating to ourselves. In this sense, people generally do all they can to not relate to themselves, because if they take that honest look, they will need to also acknowledge their game-playing and illusions, and this is totally – well – horrific.
Refusing to be ourself
But in refusing to be ourselves, we refuse to venture deeper into ourselves, into the deeper questions of life, and our lives become about the more superficial (albeit needed) goals – our traditions, our socialising needs, family, money, success blah blah. There is nothing wrong with that, and as I said, we have to play the game in order to survive, pay bills, have some enjoyment etc etc. But Kierkegaard, who is regarded as the father of existentialism, maintained that it’s very rare for a person to not be in despair and that it was in fact healthy to be aware of this. In fact he said that despair was an aspect of spirit, saying ‘the more consciousness the more intense the despair.’ But it is true that acknowledging one’s despair is not easy, as people’s “sensual reactions far outweigh their intellect. A person supposedly fortunate in this way, who imagines himself blessed by good fortune but when considered in the light of truth is unfortunate, is usually very far from wanting to be snatched out of this error. On the contrary he grows indignant, looks on the person who does this as his worst enemy, considers it an assault, something bordering on murder, as one talks of a kill-joy. And the reason? He is totally dominated by his sensuous and his pscho-sensuous reactions.; he lives in the categories of the sensate, the pleasant and the unpleasant, poo-poos spirit, the truth etc.; he is too sensate to have the courage to risk and endure being spirit “ (Kierkegaard)
Now…..don’t call me a kill-joy….:-) I am speaking from my own experience despite this being somewhat of a taboo subject perhaps, and for all those out there, who know what I mean in this post.
I have ventured to express these views in person to friends and colleagues here and there. But the usual response is disagreement – ie, no people are not despairing but generally happy. Fair enough, each to your own view, but for sure there are many who experience this, and it’s good I feel for it to be made more open.
As Kierkegaard says:
“The common view of despair goes no further than appearances, and it is therefore a superficial view, that is, no view. It assumes that every man knows best himself whether or not he is in despair. So that whoever says he is in despair is assumed to be so., but also whoever says he is not is assumed not to be. As a result despair becomes a rather rare phenomenon, instead of being quite common. What is rare is not that someone should be in despair, no, what is rare, the great rarity, is that one should truly not be in despair…not being conscious of being in despair, is itself a form of despair”
Kierkegaard on despair
Here are some more quotes of Kierkegaard:
“He who says without pretense that he despairs is, after all, a little nearer, a dialectical step nearer being cured than all those who are not regarded and who do not regard themselves as being in despair.”
“When whatever causes person to despair occurs, it is immediately evident that he has been in despair his whole life.”
“The truth is a snare: you cannot have it, without being caught. You cannot have the truth in such a way that you catch it, but only in such a way that it catches you.”
Carl Jung also stated: “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” Carl Jung, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections”, 1962
Famous people who experienced existential depression
And here are some famous people who have been said to have been existentially depressed, the list may surprise you – it includes even US Presidents.
Van Gogh, Poe, Jackson Pollock, Jim Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, Samuel Clemens, Henry James, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Virginia Woolf, Isak Dinesen, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and Dag Hammarskjöld.
So is there a way out of existential despair?
The good news is – yes there is.
But it necessitates surrender. Kierkegaard said, “It belongs to the imperfection of everything human that man can only attain his desire by passing through its opposite.” When I read that quote it I said Yes! For it’s what I have found to be so true on the spiritual path, and what I tell all Soul Plan Reading clients – we have to experience one side of the fence (negative, painful) first in order to then experience t’other (positive, joyful). It’s the same with existential issues.
Thus through passing through existential despair or depression – ie allowing it – we can come to existential joy and freedom. Joy that arises independently from deep within. However this process is not one that occurs overnight and may take years. It can also involve major changes in our lives, because existential joy and freedom come from living from our self, from our truth, from relating to ourselves authentically. And thus our lives as they are may not be aligned with such an authentic stance. There is much more I’d love to say about this but perhaps in another post.
But basically, ultimate truth is subjective – it is our truth, and that’s where we find our Joy. Taking on an external truth (others’ teachings for eg, or religion) is simply more ‘refusal to be ourself.’
From reading online and emails I have received since blogging I know that there are many experiencing existential despair or experiences of loss of illusions. The shamans know of this, they travel their darkness.
If you can relate to this, you are most certainly not alone.
Although it will not feel like it at the time, you are one of the lucky ones. The reason is that you are on the path to true existential joy, a joy that is independent of the world and cannot be taken away from you. This joy is not available until we acknowledge our inner despair. And of course it takes some inner work, and inner authentic positioning of ourselves, becoming sensitive, aware etc. It is not a one fell swoop kind of thing. But we can get to a point where our general state of being is of this deep inner Joy. For myself, after some years of this Joy first showing itself, I feel I am only now getting it.
It seems there is in fact very little by way of research about existential depression / despair. There needs to be more!
Existential Depression in Gifted Individuals - Article