“The biggest danger, that of losing oneself, can pass off in the world as quietly as if it were nothing; every other loss, an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. is bound to be noticed.” – Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death
On August 10, 2018, a man by the name of Richard Russell stole a passenger plane from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, eventually crashing it into Ketron Island. What is most interesting is that a number of individuals on the internet deemed him, in heroic fashion, the “Sky King”. Many, finding meaning in his suicidal action, see him as the embodiment of the modern condition. The feelings of despair, hopelessness, and lack of purpose that pervade society. Among the thinkers who have addressed the modern condition is the nineteenth century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, whose ideas of despair and the Self are highly relevant to our own time.
“Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose,” is how Russell described himself.
In Kierkgaard’s view, one may be depressed about his current situation, but no matter the severity of the depression, still maintain hope that that his life could be improved. Once hope is lost, however, one plummets into the spiritual affliction known as despair. But what leads an individual down the path to personal desolation?
For Kierkegaard, the Self is a synthesis of opposites, including the finite and the infinite. Entrapment in the realm of the finite negates the possibility of change and deliverance. That is because people do not have full control over their choices. They are dependent on others and perceive their environment as an inescapable prison. One could liken this condition to the feeling of being a cog in a machine. Once lost in the churning wheels of the finite, one becomes “an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd.” Lost is any sense of personal agency.
Kierkegaard posited the idea of leveling, a social process by which an individual loses his individuality and therefore cannot assert anything meaningful in life. Instead, he aligns with the abstraction known as the Public. Fully adapting to society’s system of norms reduces the individual to a member of the herd. Whereas the path to selfhood is “venturesome,” the effort “to be like the others” is convenient and easy. Kierkegaard points out that within all human beings there is dread of loneliness, of being overlooked and forgotten by society. By submerging himself in the finite, a person abandons the responsibility of becoming a fully-realized individual.
It is easy for a person’s despair to turn into anger. If he or she cannot, or refuses, to see a way forward beyond the prison of his or her environment, they may engage in suicide, mass murder, or terrorism. As psychologist Jordan Peterson puts it, people may act out their anger by making “a display of their hatred for Being by massacring the innocent”, and then doing away with themselves. Peterson makes the point that individuals who display violent discontent with existence often believe that it is better to be notorious than to be ignored. Instead of looking inward and bearing their responsibility, they target that which they hold in contempt.
For Kierkegaard, most people living in modern society are in despair, whether they know it or not. They have the illusion of freedom, but in fact their lives are severely circumscribed. Once the individual’s social purpose is fulfilled, he or she is discarded, and another takes his place. This absence of meaning is compensated by the immediate satisfaction of our desires. By relating oneself solely to the external world, the individual deceives himself by masking the lack of individuality. When the finite world fails the individual, he descends into despair, thinking that the loss of external validation is the reason for this emptiness. As Kierkegaard states. “You work yourself into the tightest group, see to it, if possible, to get yourself shoved up over the others so that you come to be above them, and as soon as you are up there you make yourself as comfortable as possible, and in this way you let yourself be carried through life. But when the crowd is gone, when the event is over, the person again stands on the street corner and looks at the world.” By moving from one satisfaction to the next, one drifts through life without clear direction or purpose. Although a person exists, he or she does not necessarily live.
The despair of Russell, the aircraft hijacker, is precisely the crisis of the modern condition. Pervasive feelings of insignificance and alienation can lead an individual to take drastic action. In this case, Russell felt that his only solution was to escape existence entirely. Moreover, the manner he chose his escape represents, metaphorically speaking, a break from the modern machine; an attempt to regain individuality. This is the solution to the modern crisis: a rebellion of the individual against the destruction of the Self, brought on by modernity.
It is highly ironic that modern society, with its technological advancements and unparalleled comforts, has done nothing to soothe the quandaries of existence. In some cases, it has made life far worse. Kierkegaard believed the balance between the syntheses gives rise to freedom which, in turn, is the grounded Self. Thus, one can then say, in his act of defiance, Russell took the first step towards selfhood by, in a sense, finding his way out the confines of the finite. For once, he lived.