Today, on his 204th birthday, the father of existentialism continues to find relevance. While Friedrich Nietzsche may be the existentialist whose name might more commonly be invoked at local coffee shops or over lavishly drunken beers, it is Søren Kierkegaard who manages to position himself in substantive ways and surprising places two centuries later.
Known best for his famed “leap” of faith, Kierkegaard never ceased to back down from life’s most daunting challenges. The ability to choose, to make just one choice when limitless possibilities are readily available, is the pinnacle of what it means to be an individual. In the appropriately titled Either/Or, Kierkegaard says, “There are two possible situations – one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it – you will regret both.” Tragic as that reality may be, it nonetheless paints a beautiful portrait of what it means to be human. Life is myriad choices.
It is not shocking, then, that Kierkegaard found himself concerned over how media informs us about current events. Long before 24-hour news cycles permeated the airways, Kierkegaard identified the potential shortcomings of how media impacts the way we see ourselves and the world. Might we become so reliant on information that we cease to think for ourselves? This is the existential threat to our individuality.
According to Kierkegaard, if we are not careful, we are at risk of having our unique individuality abstracted and lumped into categories that are meant to represent many, but in fact represent no one. Terms like public ensnare us into forming an opinion that we are told is popular or right while stealthily discouraging us to think as individuals. Each time we lunge into an online thread to proclaim our position as certainly right and the other as clearly wrong, we reinforce the trend that reduces individuals to talking points.
Early in his essay, The Present Age, Kierkegaard says in a direness heard centuries later that our time is the “age of advertisement and publicity. Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere.” With words as prophetic as these, Kierkegaard is a man out of time, transcending the confines of his short life to be a vibrant reminder that no amount of public display can replace the substance of who we are. Make no mistake, Kierkegaard invites each of us to enjoy the moments of life that seem insignificant. The advice would be to relish in the community partaken at the dinner table rather than posting a picture of the dish on Instagram in a vain attempt to be recognized. The quality of a moment cannot be replaced by a series of “likes.”
Our age – the internet age – presents a monstrous amount of information to be consumed. As glamorous and beneficial as this tool might be, it is often reduced to our lowest attributes: vanity, jealousy, and gossip. With each click or scroll we see subjects which compel us to respond. We seldom think through the information we receive. It is infrequent that we pause to ponder what we share. “Talkativeness,” Kierkegaard says, “is afraid of the silence which reveals its emptiness.”
If each of us is, as Kierkegaard poetically phrased, “to be the self that (one) is in truth,” then we must find time to retreat from the seductive nature of the internet and learn to be still with ourselves. Masquerading as a grand master, the world is but a deceiver. It tells not what is beautiful about a person, but what a person must do to be considered beautiful. The art of loving oneself begins with a spirit of reflection, what Kierkegaard called inwardness.
Perhaps this approach to self-love is the remedy to the divisive and polarizing methods of communication that plague our communities. “If everyone in truth,” Kierkegaard writes in Works of Love, loved the neighbor as himself, then perfect human equality would be achieved unconditionally.” Unlikely as this may sound in our long recovery post-election, it is entirely possible. We simply have to choose it to actualize it. Choice is at the heart of what it means to be human. Love and equality can be the result.