Kierkegaardian Anxiety Teaches A Valuable Lesson

Have you ever walked to the end of a ledge or cliff and felt a growing pit in your stomach? Your hands begin to sweat, knees begin to shake and you realize, at this moment, you could jump off and end your life. Worse yet, the only thing stopping you from jumping is yourself, an entity that you control. Even those of us who are not depressed or suicidal may feel a sudden impulse to jump, merely because we can. The overwhelming rush of anxiety that this impulse induces may feel momentarily paralyzing and terrifying, but it should not feel abnormal. It is actually intensely human.

In Søren Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety he describes this very scenario.  He then explains that this anxiety, or dread, is merely unfocused fear. Moreover, the confusion of anxiety represents one of the most basic and original human feelings. According to Kierkegaard, the anxiety that we feel on ledges is a by-product of freedom. Life is the most precious commodity, and in this moment we have the freedom to strip ourselves of it if we will ourselves to do so. Anxiety rears its head any time we have to make difficult decisions. That is because it is in these moments that we are the most free.   

If you believe in the Bible, then clearly Adam was the first person to grapple with paralyzing, overwhelming, Kierkegaardian anxiety. After all, God placed him in paradise, planted a tree with a delicious apple next to him, and told him not to eat it. By giving him a choice that he could disobey if he so pleased, God also gave Adam his first true taste of freedom.   Moreover, he had no concept of sin, because until he ate that apple, sin did not even exist. God was practically begging Adam to eat that glistening, succulent piece of fruit. Adam made the obvious choice.  He exercised his will and jumped off the metaphorical cliff.  He ate the apple and from then on, sin was born. 

Though I am a religion minor, I am not a religious person. Rather, I am an agnostic person who is willing to confidently say that I have a lot of trouble believing that anyone’s decision to eat a piece of fruit induced the fall of man.  However, I do think Adam’s story of original anxiety is an incredibly valuable one. 

Wake Forest students would benefit from reading The Concept of Anxiety. That is because, whether we like it or not, we are going to have to jump off of the proverbial cliff. We are all on the precipice of adult life. With the exception of a small handful of students, all of us Wake Foresters have been attending school since we can remember.  For most of us, especially seniors, that reality will be shattered imminently, and we will be forced to make major decisions about our futures. It is no wonder that so many of us at this school are so anxious, and that while some turn to the over-booked and under-staffed counseling center, so many others rely on drink and drugs to remove themselves from the reality of their situations. Even more silently wallow in their fear. 

I do not urge my peers to read The Concept of Anxiety because I want to remind them that it is all the major life decisions that they will soon be making that are stressing them out. They don’t need a 150 year-old-book translated from Danish to tell them that. Rather, I think The Concept of Anxiety is such a valuable read because of the way it redefines anxiety.  According to Kierkegaard, anxiety should not merely be viewed as a limiting factor that stifles happiness and freedom. Rather, a person only becomes truly conscious of himself, his true potential, and his responsibilities towards others after experiencing anxiety. That is not to say that people should not try to confront mental health issues through responsible avenues like the Counseling Center. They should.  Instead, the message to take away is that anxiety is fundamentally human, and not an embarrassing, unusual burden. It is a natural sentiment that if properly understood can be embraced. 

  • Hank Wordsworth

    Thought provoking column, though I still prefer Arousal Theory to Kierkegaard. I view anxiety as a biologically-based function of self-preservation, for better (survival) or worse (crippling fear) or both. And while I’ve never been suicidal or had the urge to jump off a cliff, it does occur to me at heights that I could slip or faint and fall, just as it occurs to me that if my car breaks down in Baltimore I could be murdered. So I try to avoid cliffs and Baltimore. Do I need help? Is it morbid of me to interpret the odds so personally? Not necessarily. Because the more I believe I can inadvertently fall from a cliff or be murdered in Baltimore, the more I believe I can win the largest lottery jackpot in history, which I will, I really will, and live to enjoy it. Though not cliff walking. And certainly not in Baltimore.