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Today we “medicate” anxiety, but for Kierkegaard it was central to being human

My own personal experience has borne out, in spades, Kierkegaard’s exquisitely expressed contention that a full engagement with the anxiety or dread that goes with being human is, in fact, central to the spiritual task of realizing one’s humanity. In this brief New York Times piece, philosopher Gordon Marino draws out this central theme of K’s philosophy to fine effect, and observes that today we’re apt to drug people who express anxiety, and thus completely miss its message.

It was because of this virtuoso of the inner life that other members of the Socrates guild, such as Heidegger and Sartre, could begin to philosophize about angst. Though he was a genius of the intellectual high wire, Kierkegaard was a philosopher who wrote from experience. And that experience included considerable acquaintance with the chronic, disquieting feeling that something not so good was about to happen. In one journal entry, he wrote, “All existence makes me anxious, from the smallest fly to the mysteries of the Incarnation; the whole thing is inexplicable, I most of all; to me all existence is infected, I most of all. My distress is enormous, boundless; no one knows it except God in heaven, and he will not console me…”

Is there any doubt that were he alive today he would be supplied with a refillable prescription for Xanax?…In the age of Big Pharma, we have, of course come to medicalize such thoughts — not to mention just about every other whim and pang…On current reckoning, anxiety is a symptom, a problem, but Kierkegaard insists, “Only a prosaic stupidity maintains that this (anxiety) is a disorganization…Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.”

In his “Works of Love,” Kierkegaard remarks that all talk about the spirit has to be metaphorical.  Sometimes anxiety is cast as a teacher, and at others, a form of surgery. The prescription in “The Concept of Anxiety” and other texts is that if we can, as the Buddhists say, “stay with the feeling” of anxiety, it will spirit away our finite concerns and educate us as to who we really are, “Then the assaults of anxiety, even though they be terrifying, will not be such that he flees from them.” According to Kierkegaard’s analysis, anxiety like nothing else brings home the lesson that I cannot look to others, to the crowd, when I want to measure my progress in becoming a full human being.

Full story: “Kierkegaard, Danish Doctor of Dread,” The New York Times, March 17, 2012