Brain Pickings

Kierkegaard on Our Greatest Source of Unhappiness

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Hope, memory, and how our chronic compulsion to flee from our own lives robs us of living.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard memorably wrote in reflecting on why presence matters more than productivity. “On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it,” Henry Miller asserted in his beautiful meditation on the art of living. And yet we spend our lives fleeing from the present moment, constantly occupying ourselves with overplanning the future or recoiling with anxiety over its impermanence, thus invariably robbing ourselves of the vibrancy of aliveness.

In a chapter of the altogether indispensable 1843 treatise Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (public library), the influential Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855), considered the first true existentialist philosopher, explores precisely that — how our constant escapism from our own lives is our greatest source of unhappiness.

Kierkegaard, who was only thirty at the time, begins with an observation all the timelier today, amidst our culture of busy-as-a-badge-of-honor:

Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.

(It’s worth remembering, here, that “busy is a decision” — one we constantly make, and often to our own detriment.)

In a latter chapter, titled “The Unhappiest Man,” he returns to the subject and its deeper dimension:

The unhappy person is one who has his ideal, the content of his life, the fullness of his consciousness, the essence of his being, in some manner outside of himself. The unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself. But one can be absent, obviously, either in the past or in the future. This adequately circumscribes the entire territory of the unhappy consciousness.

He considers how the very architecture of our language perpetuates our proclivity for absence:

The unhappy one is absent. But one is absent when living in the past or living in the future. The form of expression is important, for it is evident, as philology also teaches us, that there is a tense that expresses present in the past, and a tense that expresses presence in the future; but the same science also teaches us that there is a pluperfect tense in which there is no present, as well as a future perfect tense with the same characteristics. These are the hoping and remembering individuals. Inasmuch as they are only hoping or only remembering, these are indeed in a sense unhappy individuals, if otherwise it is only the person who is present to himself that is happy. However, one cannot strictly call an individual unhappy who is present in hope or in memory. For what one must note here is that he is still present to himself in one of these. From which we also see that a single blow, be it ever so heavy, cannot make a person the unhappiest. For one blow can either deprive him of hope, still leaving him present in memory, or of memory, leaving him present in hope.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Kierkegaard goes on to explore these two key forms of escapism from presence, via hope and via memory:

Consider first the hoping individual. When, as a hoping individual (and of course to that extent unhappy), he is not present to himself, he becomes unhappy in a stricter sense. An individual who hopes for an eternal life is, indeed, in a certain sense an unhappy individual to the extent that he renounces the present, but nevertheless is strictly not unhappy, because he is present to himself in the hope and does not come in conflict with the particular moments of finitude. But if he cannot become present to himself in hope, but loses his hope, hopes again, and so on, then he is absent from himself not just in the present but also in the future, and we have a type of the unhappy. Though the hoping individual does not hope for something that has no reality for him, he hopes for something he himself knows cannot be realized. For when an individual loses hope, and instead of becoming a remembering individual, wants to remain a hoping one, then we get this form.

Similarly if we consider the remembering individual. If he finds himself present in the past, strictly he is not unhappy; but if he cannot do that but remains constantly absent from himself in a past, then we have a form of the unhappy.

Memory is pre-eminently the real element of the unhappy, as is natural seeing the past has the remarkable characteristic that it is gone, the future that it is yet to come; and one can therefore say in a sense that the future is nearer the present than is the past. That future, for the hoping individual to be present in it must be real, or rather must acquire reality for him. The past, for the remembering individual to be present in it, must have had reality for him. But when the hoping individual would have a future which can have no reality for him, or the remembering individual remember a past which had had no reality for him, then we have the genuinely unhappy individuals. Unhappy individuals who hope never have the same pain as those who remember. Hoping individuals always have a more gratifying disappointment. The unhappiest one will always, therefore, be found among the unhappy rememberers.

For a potent antidote, pair this with Alan Watts on how to live with presence and Anna Quindlen on how to live rather than exist, then see Albert Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons.

Either/Or is a consciousness-expanding read in its entirety. Complement it with Kierkegaard on the relationship between creativity and anxiety.

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