Dread, time and the pandemic

Søren Kierkegaard’s reflections on worry are useful reading for those in lockdown

There’s a risk in saying that for the problems of the present, we must consult the philosophers of the past. Self-help books with titles like How Cicero Can Save Your Online Business deserve to be approached with scepticism. Nevertheless, in thinking about the experience of the pandemic and lockdown, I have found myself ruminating on some themes from the 19th-century thinker Søren Kierkegaard. Two in particular loom large: the difference between fear and anxiety; and our relation to time—which has a surprisingly pertinent pay-off for our attitude towards everyday tasks.

The Concept of Anxiety is one of Kierkegaard’s most notoriously difficult books. Often paired with an equally demanding later work, The Sickness Unto Death, together they show how feelings of anxiety and despair point towards nothing less than an account of the self and human freedom. Here, I want to draw out just one key theme: the distinction Kierkegaard draws between fear and anxiety (Angest, sometimes translated as “dread”). Fear is of something specific: that approaching bear; those cancer test results; whether you are targeted in your employer’s upcoming redundancy exercise. Anxiety pertains to something unspecific: a feeling of unease lacking a determinate object. Kierkegaard (or his pseudonym, Vigilius Haufniensis) compares it to dizziness, “the dizziness of freedom”; the paralysing potential of gazing into the abyss of possibility. The paralysing element is captured in Vigilius’s memorable claim that anxiety “can just as well express itself by muteness as by a scream”.

What is the relevance of this to Covid-19? At first glance, we might think that the natural reaction to the coronavirus is fear. Isn’t Covid-19, and our worry about it, absolutely something specific? We’ve been worrying about catching it, and if we catch it, either dying of it ourselves, or passing it on to someone, perhaps someone we know and love, who may be more likely to die of it than we are.

But as time moves on, our fears have perhaps morphed into anxieties. Beyond the tragedy of the death toll, our concerns are now increasingly moving to worries about the economic consequences (very much including their impact on public health). You might fear the loss of your job; whether, post-furlough, there will be any job for you to come back to. But suppose your fears are realised. Your reaction to the job loss may not be simply to seek out an identical role in a different company. You may now start to wonder whether more of the same is really what you want or need. And this lack of orientation may be experienced more as Kierkegaard describes anxiety: as simultaneously repelling and attracting. On the one hand, you are disoriented: the certainties of everyday life are no longer there. On the other, you are faced with a whole range of possibilities that previously you had not seriously considered as possibilities. Welcome to the world of anxiety, which is the human condition: the dizzying effects of freedom. As Vigilius puts it, anxiety is “a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy”: a desire for what one fears and a fear of what one desires. Yet, Vigilius claims, to learn to be anxious in the right way is a task for every individual as part of the process of becoming a self.

Freedom and necessity are two of a trio of poles that The Sickness Unto Death considers to be at the heart of what makes up the human self. The others are the finite and the infinite; and the temporal and the eternal. Some of Kierkegaard’s reflections on time also seem pertinent to our current situation.

It has frequently been observed that time feels different in lockdown. Not just in the obvious sense—avoiding the two-hour commute as we work from home—but in the sense that the everyday distinctions many had taken for granted—the distinctions between work and home time—have for many become more blurred. Now that the office is the living room, leaving work stuff at work—both physically and mentally—becomes harder.

Some of Kierkegaard’s richest reflections on our relationship to time are to be found in a text much less famous than The Sickness Unto Death, namely his discourses on the lilies of the field and the birds of the air mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel. Kierkegaard returns time and again to Matthew 6: 24-34, Jesus’s advice not to worry about the future. Urging us to turn our attention to the birds of the air, who neither sow, reap or gather into barns, and yet are fed; and the lilies of the field, who neither work or spin, yet are clothed in glory, we are urged to “seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness”, and not to worry about tomorrow, for each day has enough trouble of its own. “What is anxiety?”, Kierkegaard asks in his Christian Discourses. His succinct reply: “It is the next day.”

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Kierkegaard’s reflections on what it means for the lily and the bird to be our “teachers” is that, in embodying what it means “to be today”, they manifest joy; a joy through which it is said to be possible to transcend worry. How is “to be today” an expression of joy, and how does this differ from what is usually meant by
“living for today”? After all, Kierkegaard’s “aesthete”—the unnamed young man known only as “A” in his early work Either/Or—recommends and seems to embody a kind of “living for the moment”, deliberately avoiding commitments such as friendship, marriage and useful career, and the responsibilities that go with them. Urging his readers to cultivate their imagination and focus on the entirely arbitrary, he “enjoys something entirely accidental” and “regards the whole of existence from this standpoint”. All this in order to avoid his greatest fear: boredom, the “root of all evil”.

And one of the key lessons of Either/Or is typically taken to be that this is precisely how not to live. For all his intelligence, the aesthete is a dilettante who views life in terms of entertaining possibilities to be savoured, not ideals or projects to be pursued. Lacking a goal for his life, he is on most readings the embodiment of the despairing emptiness that we are supposed to come to see as lying at the heart of even the most sophisticated kind of “live for the present” hedonism. As his older friend Judge Vilhelm puts it, “Your mind draws up a hundred plans, everything is prepared for the assault. Should it fail in one direction, instantly your well-nigh diabolical dialectic is ready to explain that away as a necessary part of the new plan of operation. You hover constantly over yourself . . .” What Kierkegaard calls the ethical life—and which is typically seen as an advance on the aesthetic life—has commitment to tasks, projects and ideals at its core. So what is he getting at by associating “to be today” with genuine joy?

The answer might be seen in the difference between what the philosopher Kieran Setiya, in his book Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, calls telic and atelic activities. Telic activities—from the Greek telos, for goal or purpose—are at the heart of so much of what we do, small and large. Driving home from work; taking the kids to football practice; building a house; writing a book. To say nothing of reaping, sowing and gathering into barns. The value of each is perceived in terms of the completion of the goal. But to the extent that the purpose I have found in life has been in the writing of my book, or the building of my house, this means that the very completion of this task threatens me with a loss of meaning. Even if the activity is valuable, and I find its completion fulfilling, deriving a sense of achievement from it, I’ve got the problem: when it’s over, what next?

In attempting to answer that question, I seek to fill that gap with another project, such that life becomes just a series of projects, both personal and professional. Fulfilment lies either in the past or the future. The realisation, on some level, that this is what is happening to us is what gives rise to many a “midlife crisis”. Despite the name, such a crisis can arise at any stage of life. But there is something persuasive about Setiya’s suggestion that it is in midlife that our over-dependence upon telic activities is most likely to become apparent, as many long-term goals either prove to be impossible or are achieved (and so, what next?).

Contrast this with atelic activities: those in which the value inheres not in their completion. Relaxing with family and friends; listening to—or, better still, playing—music; reading for pleasure. This has been one major feature of the lockdown: the distinction between those who have been appreciating such opportunities, and those who can’t wait for all this to be over. The key lesson is that the activities we love need not be projects; atelic thinking is a way of getting beyond project-thinking.

Consider walking. Since moving to Sydney, my wife and I have become big fans of bush-walks in the Blue Mountains—the perfect “social distancing” exercise. I particularly love circular bush-walks. Unlike a trip from A to B, the great joy of this is that it proves a direct challenge to telic thinking. Yes, there is an end destination—but the end destination is precisely the same point as the start, so that anyone who thought that the purpose of the exercise was to get back to where you started would have missed the point. Or consider gardening. The skilled gardener knows that there is no end point, since she is working with raw material that is evolving beyond her control, not least owing to the changes in the seasons. Atelic thinking finds value and meaning in the process, rather than the project. But this is not a distinction between work and leisure (the fabled “work-life balance”). Kierkegaard claims that work—if viewed with what we are here labelling an atelic attitude—can itself be a source of this “joy”.

Is part of what the lilies and birds teach us that we should try to shift from a purely telic attitude towards a more atelic one? This need not mean replacing the activities themselves, but our attitude towards them. Don’t blame your particular goals, but the fact you are goal-fixated. A focus on process rather than projects can help move us beyond the debilitating self-absorption that, for Kierkegaard, is at the heart of so many human worries. This self-absorption in turn stems from the spirit of unproductive comparison that is the key message of his parable of the “worried lily”. Its contented life is disrupted by a bird who sows the seeds of the lily’s destruction by comparing it to other, more beautiful lilies, and encouraging it to want to be moved; uprooted, which leads to its demise. In human terms, the pride and envy shown by the lily arises from stressing the diversity that results from comparison (status anxiety?) more than our common humanity. This points towards a humility of a certain sort. Not of self-abasement, or of ranking oneself low, but the kind of humility that is about getting beyond dwelling upon ourselves, such that our attention is directed outwardly towards other people and things of value in the world. In a memorable image in the Christian Discourses, Kierkegaard compares the person who lives absorbed in “today” with the rower who makes progress by turning his back on the direction of travel. In this way, the person with an atelic attitude turns her back on future-oriented worry. So perhaps it’s time to get out into the garden.

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