I don’t know anyone who does not suffer from some form of Anxiety. I have written about this variously elsewhere on this site but the more research I do on psychology and philosophy (for work I might add, that is literally my job) the more it seems an inevitability of modern living. I was recently reading Kierkegaard’s ‘Sickness Unto Death’ which he calls Despair, which he defines in the almost comedic way of: “relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation”. Soren was talking about the search for God and the idea of sin or simply a life without God being the eponymous ‘Sickness’, however there is a lot in the text that neatly describes the sort of depression that is on the rise today. For such a short but dense philosophical text, chiefly about God, it is worth the read purely because of its demand for self-exploration and understanding. In it Kierkegaard talks about the idea of ‘embracing oneself’ which is very much a buzzword amongst the positivity movement that is so prevalent today but more than that it grapples with the notion of the infinite and the finite and reconciling our place within both. As such ‘Sickness Unto Death’ can be seen as one of the earliest existential texts.
Even more interestingly Kierkegaard also wrote a text called ‘The Concept of Anxiety’ in 1844. In it he uses the analogy of a man at a cliff edge looking over the edge and being terrified by the drop yet with a compulsion to jump off. This internal conflict is what he defines as Anxiety or Angst: living in indecision. What this signifies is the dread that accompanies an awareness of our own freedom. The immensity of our abilities and our freedom in such a vast, and largely uncaring, universe is powerful and daunting, Kierkegaard recognizes this and gave us the definition for what teenagers around the world are accused of feeling every day. And he was right. What greater kind of indecision and accompanying dread is there in life than the transformation from a near total lack of awareness in childhood to almost too much awareness and understanding in adulthood? Every teenager is afflicted with angst because they have not yet learned to compartmentalize in the way adults do and bury ourselves in the minutiae of everyday life to ignore the immensity of experience and existence. Naturally, as a Christian, Kierkegaard says this is to do with sin and not accepting God but again need not be read that way. The idea of reconciling the finite and the infinite is a struggle which we all deal with. Or at least I thought it was.
HP Lovecraft is a horror writer from the early 20th century who built on this existential dread of reconciling our place in the Universe that was explored in a similar way in fiction by Ambrose Bierce and Robert Chambers but is definitely born of Kierkegaard’s explorations into Despair & Angst. I’m a fan of this type of horror writing and apparently I’m not alone, many things in popular culture at the moment are turning to this kind of existential horror in in either direct or oblique but always interesting ways. I wrote about this resurgence on this site previously too. Despite this it would seem this type of horror is purely the bastion of the straight white male. The thing that prompted me to write this piece was on Twitter recently, someone RTed a quote by William Hutson of the hip-hop group Clipping who said that “Lovecraft’s cosmic pessimism is only terrifying if you’re a straight white man and you thought you were the centre of the universe anyway.” Now an important thing to know about Lovecraft was that he was a racist and anti-semite and these factors undeniably informed his writing. Writing at a time of post war civil rights meant a straight white dude was being confronted by his own existence, specifically (he thought) having his freedoms removed. Now whilst this is certainly true it does little to explain why Ice T recently talked about his love for the Lovecraft story ReAnimator on Twitter or the incredibly horrifying existential confrontation of Get Out that was such an enormous success. And, most tellingly, the cultural penetration of Game of Thrones which is purely about the existential threat of the amorphous Winter, the night that is “dark and full of terrors” and so on, and the futility of our fighting it (a topic explored by Wisecrack). Lovecraft’s brand of existential terror is indeed informed by his problematic beliefs but the genre itself only seems to become more and more potent as the years go by.
Despite the despicable racism, anti-semitism, nationalism and class disparity that continues today, life in the west has improved vastly since the late 19th century. Equality took massive strides forward over the last 50 years and we live in a world of technological wonders like the internet that has increased the living conditions of billions and the rise of automation in industry has given us more free time to do what we love. And yet here we are with all this luxury, realizing how it equally penalizes other nations and cultures, how automation robs people of jobs and their identity, with rising political beliefs of a return to old fashioned segregation and discrimination, sexism and a potent form of nationalism all on the rise not the decline. In short, the whole planet has been confronted with its own freedom and the truly awesome immensity therein and far from embracing this and attempting to make a far more equitable and sympathetic society utilizing all this incredible new tools at our disposal, millions have shied from it. Instead they prefer to close their borders, demand a return to the ‘good old days’, where freedoms were limited, people were told what to do and personal liberties were maintained violently. By extension this can be seen in individuals as much as it can different societies or nations or people.
Friends and family of mine live their lives very differently now to the way I saw it as a kid. With the gig economy and most relationships (of any kind) being cultivated online and therefore needing nothing more than our smart device to run most aspects of daily life, we are given an enormous amount of freedom. With a wealth of things to do, to live and to experience in our time we instead live our lives in increasingly smaller homes and binge-watching season after season of television shows. The response to this is often “well I can’t afford to do anything” which in itself is another existential argument but what we’re essentially saying is we want to forgo our choice i.e. we are living in indecision. Some people are dedicated to moving forward and doing things and smugly tell us about it online in a passive aggressive way that says ‘you should be doing the same, you lazy bum’, others are dedicated to regressing society and become President, whereas I think most of us are the ones stuck in that stasis of indecision, not knowing how to move forward or back and consequently not putting the effort into defining ourselves beyond the roles a steadily dissolving society has given us. We are freer than we have ever been as species (that does not mean there are not people who have little to no freedoms and are not subjugated) and yet far from accepting and utilizing this freedom the vast majority of us either shun it entirely or refuse to do anything with it and that, I believe, is where this epidemic of anxiety has grown from.
Far from being the exclusive malady of the white middle class, I think this existential anxiety is rife amongst humanity today, whatever your belief, creed, colour or nation. The need for creating purpose in our lives and a direction for humanity as whole has never been more necessary but equally never more ignored and therefore, Kierkegaard’s need to reconcile ourselves with the immensity of existence, with God or without, seems to be the ultimate test of our times. If we cannot learn to justify our own existence and our place in the universe we may be heading for a lack of it.