Who am I supposed to be?
What am I supposed to do with my life?
These are existential questions that individuals ask themselves throughout their lives. And while they consume a lot of mental bandwidth in your 20s as you take your first steps into adulthood, they still haunt you in your 30s, 40s, 50s, and even 60s, though the tenor of your reflection changes over time. As you get older, you worry less about what you should do with your life, and start worrying more about whether you’ve lived your life right.
There’s a philosopher who spent a lot of time thinking about this existential angst that’s struck many a man as he stands in a grocery store line or lies in bed at night; in fact, he’s the thinker who’s credited with fleshing out the whole idea of existential angst.
I’m talking about none other than Soren Kierkegaard.
Kierkegaard was a philosopher with some truly keen insights into the human condition, particularly regarding what it means to be a “self.” In his book The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard unfolds his idea of what it means to be a self, the emotions and attitudes we can take towards the self, and why we often feel so anxious about what we’re supposed to do with our lives or who we are to become.
Kierkegaard isn’t the most straightforward writer. There are times when I read his stuff, and I want to throw the book across the room because I have no clue what he’s trying to get at. But when you finally realize what he’s saying about the self and our relation to the self, it fundamentally changes the way you think about your own life.
The modern thinker who helped me finally understand and appreciate Kierkegaard’s idea of the self is philosophy professor Gordon Marino. In his book, The Existentialist’s Survival Guide, Marino gives a simplified, accessible explanation of what Kierkegaard was trying to say in The Sickness Unto Death.
Below I share Marino’s outline of Kierkeegaard’s concept of the self. It’s given me a lot to ponder on. Maybe it will do the same for you.
Kierkegaard’s Three Selves
According to Marino, Kierkegaard would say that our identity is made up of three selves: our concrete self, our ideal self, and our true self:
The Concrete Self. The concrete self is who we are now. Maybe, for example, you’re a dude who lives in Ohio, owns a restaurant, has a wife and two kids, likes cycling, and has a generous heart but struggles with anger.
The Ideal Self. The ideal self is the self you want to be. You want to be a millionaire. You want to be 20 pounds lighter. You want to be an Ironman. You want to be calmer. You want to be a man who has it together. These are all versions of your ideal self.
The True Self. The true self is the self God wants you to be, or in Kierkegaard’s words, the true self is the self “rested transparently in God.”
While Kierkegaard’s conception of the true self is strongly influenced by his Christian faith, Marino argues that it can equally apply to non-believers. He says it’s possible to think of your true self as your moral ideal. Or, as Catholic priest Fr. James Martin puts it, your true self is your “best self.”
Your true self transcends the egocentricity of the ideal self. It’s not about what you want; it’s about what the transcendent wants for you and accepting it. It’s moving from asking, “What is the world asking of me?” to asking, “What is my soul asking of me?” Which can be a scary shift. Becoming your true self often requires a leap of faith, which Kierkegaard discusses in detail in his book Fear and Trembling. But that’s a subject for another time.
What Is Despair?
So according to our philosopher friend Soren, our seemingly singular self is really made up of three selves.
He then describes the state of a person who cannot obtain their ideal self or true self.
He calls it despair. And Kierkegaard being Kierkegaard, his concept of despair is nuanced and multifaceted.
We often think of despair as an emotion. Like you’re really sad and just want to lie in your bed with your blinds closed while listening to Snow Patrol. And for Kierkegaard, despair could definitely elicit those emotions.
But according to Marino, it’s better to think of despair as a state of the self. As we’ll see here in a bit, it’s possible
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