Kierkegaard on how a man becomes truly unhappy


“Can you think of anything more frightful,” writes Kierkegaard, “than that it might end with your nature being resolved into a multiplicity, that you really might become many, become, like those unhappy demoniacs, a legion, and you thus would have lost the inmost and holiest thing of all in a man, the unifying power of personality?…In every man there is something which to a certain degree prevents him from becoming perfectly transparent to himself… but he who cannot reveal himself cannot love, and he who cannot love is the most unhappy man of all.”

You know when you come across that passage in a book that stops your world from spinning and focuses your attention to such a degree that you almost forget to breathe? That’s what this passage in Kierkegaard’s “Either/Or” does to me.

Am I Legion? Have I bought into the endless attachments to things, sensations, securities, ambitions, offenses, loves, hates that my world demands? Have I allowed myself to “resolve into a multiplicity”? I hope not; I feel myself at nearly every moment fighting these dragons. If I don’t hate whom they hate then I’m a bigot; If I’m not scared to death by what they fear then I’m not woke; if I don’t believe in the same enemies then I’m the enemy; if I value people’s values more than their skin color or orientation then, ironically, I’m a racist, homophobic, xenophobe, etc., etc. The list never ends, and grows daily. One is simply not allowed to be a unified personality, or, at a minimum, not allowed to refrain from jumping headlong into every thoughtless social trend without suffering as a complete outsider. It’s a real challenge.

But is the “holiest thing in man” really to be a unified personality? Seeing as how utterly impossible it seems to be, and the joy which lives on the other side of singularity, I can believe it. The Apostle James made this point saying the double-minded man is “unstable in all his ways,” and should “expect nothing from the Lord” (Jas 1:7-8). And since love is the highest virtue, who could deny that single-mindedness is in fact the holiest thing in man if it really is what determines man’s ability to love?

But what is the connection between being a unified personality and being able to love? And how does being transparent with oneself act as the cure to double-mindedness?

Here Kierkegaard shows himself to be a master psychologist before there was such a title. He understands that the degree to which a man is able to be transparent with himself, the degree to which he is able dig into the real person below his façade without cowering in fear of being vulnerable (a striking contradiction), is the degree to which he will rescue those parts of himself that he has warded off at some earlier stage.

Often a man will disown parts of himself that made him vulnerable as a child: hurts, sadness, need for care and connection, etc. At some point a man will make a resolution (whether consciously or unconsciously) that he will never again be that scared little boy he once was shuddering below the belt of his father, or the victim of a bully, a brother, or an unaffectionate mother, or a million other things, and will instead strive be the stoic superman of his fantasy, ideal self. And he will defend himself from emotional “weakness” with seemingly religious devotion.

Ironically, this strength will utterly destroy him in the end.

It will destroy him for numerous reasons, the most important of which is his inability to love. If love requires the involvement of the lover’s whole self then real love is impossible for the man who is a divided self. And if this is true, that love is the most important thing and that it requires a united self to thrive, then the man who is self-alienated in his emotions is doomed.

I think the same could be said for any of the virtues: forgiveness requires the whole self, repentance the whole self, humility the whole self, faith the whole self. One cannot be partially humble, partially repentant, partially in faith. These things resist all partiality if they are to be what they are at essence.

Incidentally, the vices and passions are otherwise. It seems almost required that one be a divided self in order to hate, despise, indulge in corruption, debauchery, self-harm, etc. The vices and passions always require some level of reluctance for them to thrive in one’s system; the virtues the exact opposite. Without a half-commitment most of the vices and passions would kill a person in short order.

What is it that prevents one from being transparent to himself?

I believe discovering that which prevents is as easy (and as hard) as daring to listen without distraction to the voice within. Truly, if as Christ said, “The kingdom of heaven is within you,” then a little undistracted and honest introspection will yield the greatest treasures to be found on earth. Or at least “the holiest thing of all in man.”

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