It can happen almost anywhere—debating with your spouse about where to eat or reading an article about the job satisfaction in a particular line of work. It’s the rush of anxiety that life carries too many choices. Most recently, my child said, “I died” after playing a video game on the iPad, and it was enough to make me rethink everything I know about my life and the way I’m living it. Kierkegaard (under the guise Haufniensis) pictures a man standing at the edge of a cliff who has a chilling fear of falling. More terrifying still, there’s an impulse that he might actually want to jump. Dread and angst rise to the surface. Such is the ‘dizziness of our freedom,’ whether your in the grocery choosing between whole wheat and white or choosing whether and how to exist.
It’s freedom, says Kierkegaard, that’s intricately connected with our anxiety—we have infinite numbers of decisions, complicated today by a strong case of FOMO (fear of missing out), and a vast sea of avenues to becoming a true subject and a realized self. He goes on to say that this dizziness of freedom is part of the human condition. The Judeo-Christian tradition expressed it through the tale of Adam and Eve who are bestowed the possibility of eating forbidden fruit, initiating an awareness of good and evil. It’s the ambiguity of freedom that predisposes and causes the sin.
Child psychologists know that excessive toys and trinkets produce overly anxious children. Simplify their lives, they say. No paralysis. It’s too bad that we grow and graduate from a curated number of trinkets to an abyss of possibilities. There are ways, of course, to mitigate or deflect the damage as we grow older: Steve Jobs wore a black mock turtleneck, blue jeans, and New Balance sneakers every day. I mindlessly frequent the same coffee shop to avoid deciding between the plethora of good pour overs on Haywood Road. Less benignly, some shut off decision completely by living entire lives running from the anxiety of choice, mindlessly following whatever shepherd is loudest while never questioning the customs, social conventions that are handed down.
But Kierkegaard thinks that’s the wrong instinct. We lose our humanity when we only throw pills at the anxiety or avoid it at all costs. One day you’ll be driving in your car when you come to the realization that you’ve been living a lie—that your existence is masquerading as a life—and you’ve never actually chosen to really live and die for anything.
It might be counterintuitive, but Kierkegaard says to embrace the anxiety; it’s the disease and the cure.
“One would have no anxiety if there were no possibility whatever,” writes Kierkegaard. But there is possibility, and it’s the possibility that makes us human—we have the ability to decide our lives and to become a self. He goes on to say, “If man were a beast or an angel, he would not be able to be in anxiety. Since he is both beast and angel, he can be in anxiety, and the greater the anxiety, the greater the man.” One must deliberately enter into it and look for the generative possibilities. We alone have the possibility to pursue a specific life, seek a particular adventure, choose among the endless avenues—take a leap of faith and become a true subject.
And until you make that choice, or act on a defining commitment, there’ll be paralysis or aimless wandering at best. At the worst, existential despair (conscious or unconscious) and a sickness in your spirit.
And that’s a gift.
And maybe this is why anxiety is so central to Christianity: it’s about choosing the persons we want to become before the world chooses for us. It’s the catalyst for assuming a proper relation to the Eternal—or, at least the prerequisite to our recognition of our absolute need of it. We take the leap away sin and discord into the kinds of creatures that we were created to become. Then, in an instant, literally the ‘eye blink,’ there’s a moment when the eye opens and eternity intersects with temporality. “In the instant, [the individual] becomes aware of the rebirth, for his previous state was indeed one of ‘not to be.’” The haze of confusion burns away and there is subjective clarity. This moment of vision bestows a defining commitment, relativizing all others, endowing a true identity.
To live is to be anxious, but it’s your choice on how you harness it. Ignore it. Follow the herd. Or, find a defining commitment and enter the strain between who you are and who you might become.
For “whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.”
Next time you find yourself standing at the edge of a cliff, don’t freeze or take a step back. Choose to take the leap into personhood. Do it every day. Or better, open your eyes to the moment of transfigured vision—assume a posture of being and an orientation of the mind that is shaped by Jesus Christ, God incarnate.