Gordon Marino suggests the patron saint of Danish angst, the ‘Danish doctor of dread’, Soren Kierkegaard, can offer us, through his theoretical and conceptual insights into anxiety, a view of ourselves more philosophically informative than the pharmaceutical-enforced rendering of humans as collections of discrete pathologies, each amenable to a piece-meal isolation and ‘treatment’. In doing so, Kierkegaard promises us one of existentialism’s hard-fought rewards, encounters with freedom, found precisely in those spaces where its terrible costs are extracted in encounters with existential dread, anxiety, and angst.
Marino suggests that Kierkegaard, in asking us to read and follow him on anxiety, is encouraging a species of anxious response that enables an understanding of the value of the most persistent, enduring, and subtle of existential responses: the central unease with the very fact of being. Since the confrontations with this sort of fundamental existential anxiety take place at the boundaries or limits of our understandings of ourselves, in moments of quiet self-reflection and intense attention paid to the terrible possibilities of our possible choices, our encounters with anxiety always holds the possibilities of innovative self-discovery. The psychic burden of anxiety is then plausibly understood as offset by the gains in self-knowledge it affords; to experience anxiety is to experience our capacity for freedom. To allow ourselves to experience anxiety is to engage in a very peculiar kind of self-observation, sensitive to one’s deepest affective responses, alert to the shapelessness of our lives and to the anxiety it provokes in bringing us face to face with our responsibility for mapping our lives anew at every lived instant.
In this way, the experience of anxiety–precisely because it affords a moment for discovery, reconceptualization and self-construction–is not something to be medicated out of existence. The experience of the anxiety can be unpleasant and sometimes, precisely because it might have generated paralyzing inaction, trigger the palliative response of intoxication or medication. But a living with the phenomenology and the felt experience of the anxiety, a conscious ‘wallowing’ and ‘inspection’, as it were, can enable an investigation of the self and the particular economy of its lived life. The rejection of anxiety, the desire to not feel it, might be revelatory of another, deeply felt, perhaps-even-more -anxious response; to medicate the anxiety is a rejection of a path to self-knowledge.
So the most significant aspect of Kierkegaard’s paying attention to anxiety is that by noticing it, and talking about it, and acknowledging it, not as pathology, but as informative part of ourselves, it becomes not something to be expelled, but to be welcomed as a message from ourselves, one to be placed alongside, and integrated with others like it in the past. As Kierkegaard says, “Only a prosaic stupidity maintains that this (anxiety) is a disorganization.” In saying this, Kierkegaard is suggesting that our view of anxiety as pathology can only lead to regarding ourselves as pathology. To stay with anxiety, to stop and respond to its challenge, is to accept a form of dialog with ourselves, to engage with a species of inquiry fundamental to ourselves.