Anxiety, despair and faith: a confession

bethatselfI have once before written a personal testimony here. On that occasion I focused on my philosophical journey to faith. I am now moved to write this story again with an emphasis on its no less important psychological aspects.

From my early teens I struggled with anxiety and depression, a struggle that culminated in a collapse into a disabling depressive state in my mid twenties. Throughout this period I sought solutions to my chronic despair in political activity and philosophical reflection. The endpoint of this was a nihilism that made me unable to function.

I had for a number of years been mortally afraid that my frequent bouts of anxiety would escalate into a panic that would result in disintegration into psychotic illness. Over the years I had observed this kind of disaster happen to a number of people to whom I was close and I was plagued by the worry that this would happen to me.

A response to this fear was to seek shelter in an intimate relationship with a woman who would protect and nurture me so that there was a place for me that was so safe the anxiety would abate. In my confusion and terror I hoped that this hiding place would simultaneously provide an opening into the world from which I was trying to escape. This set up a pattern that was destructive in the extreme, both for me and for the women who joined me in this absurd project.

Thus my life revolved around three centres: the quest for a political project that would transform the world into one in which there was nothing to be afraid of (various forms of revolutionary Marxism); a philosophical search for an understanding of the human condition that would reveal the truth and ground of that political project, giving a secure and unassailable foundation to my life; the search the a love that would create the ideal world in miniature. between two people.

By my mid-twenties this linked set of responses to my dislocation from the world, fear of it, and failure to discern meaning and value in anything I could see or be had failed completely and absolutely.

Six years of intensive study of my favoured variant of Marxism (the Hegelian Marxism derived from the Hungarian philosopher Gyorgy Lukacs and developed differently by both more or less orthodox Communists and by unorthodox Marxists in the Frankfurt School) convinced me that there was little or nothing to be said for it. Its account of the fundamental nature of historical development was wrong, as was its theory of the workings of capitalism. It was wrong about the relationship between human beings and the rest of nature, about the structure of human society, about economics and about everything else I had thought about with any seriousness, Marxism was simply and totally wrong about everything. Furthermore its political programmes and strategies were such as either to guarantee failure and futility for those who followed them or, worse, to lead to appallingly negative results if successful.

Unsurprisingly for someone whose melancholy was profound and integral the philosophical conclusions I came to were bleak and unhelpful. At the point at which I concluded that the neo-Marxism of Theodor Adorno (the last stop in my journey through Western Marxism) was as hopeless as all the others I discovered the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Whatever he may or may not really have thought or written what I took from him was the idea that Western culture was collapsing into nihilism. The values of that culture had for many centuries been set by a Christianity that was being destroyed by science.

Christianity was a slave ideology that rested on submission to a master whose reality could no longer be credible. The slave mentality it had created meant that out of its wreckage no new values could arise. An empty and desolate cultural landscape was emerging and the only possible response was for those strong enough to discard everything it had left, morality, aesthetics, philosophy, politics, and to create their own autonomous and foundationless set of values.

His diagnosis convinced me completely (it accorded all too well with my experience of all that was, including my self, as without worth) but could not believe in his solution. I could neither believe in the possibility of legislating my own table of values nor be attracted by an outlook that rejected any moral order that included compassion as one of its characteristics.

Finally I came to see the series of my relationships as one of repetition of a failure that had come to be increasingly empty and hopeless. I saw in myself a set of needs and responses that were harmful both to me and to others and to offer no hope of a lasting or fulfilling partnership. Any new venture in this domain felt like it was both a betrayal of the past and an irresponsible risking of someone else.

My life seemed to have reached a point where all ways forward were blocked and I had nowhere left to go. Politics, philosophy and love, the three projects that I had thought would lead me out of my melancholia into some sunlit world of ease and happiness had all turned out to lead nowhere. I could see no way to believe in a transformation of the world that would make it inherently valuable and hospitable, nor in a comprehension of it that would prove it to have value, nor in the creation within it of a haven that would be a home I could live in.

I was incapable of useful work on my PhD or of social interaction with my fellow students. It was time to leave. After discussion with my supervisor I suspended my registration for a year and with it the British Academy Studentship that was paying for my studies and my upkeep. I went to London and got a job in a library, I felt liberated from the life I left behind and had no clear idea of what I would do next.

It was at this point I discovered the work of Kierkegaard and more particularly “Either/Or”. Kierkegaard is one of the great thinkers of depression. His starting point is that of the melancholic who, while depressed is convinced that the depressive position is the only true one and that those who do not recognise this are achieving (in many ways admirable) feats of self-deception. The true melancholic knows that the world is meaningless and empty, however little he or she likes it. There is even a kind of pride in bearing and acknowledging the inner truth of life’s valuelessness.

In the first part of Either/Or Kierkegaard (or some of his pseudonyms) experience this in respect of a way of life that values the interesting and the pleasurable, the intense instant in which experience is heightened, the way of life of the aesthete. To me, at the time, that this was futile and self-defeating was obvious and trivial but I could admire the imagination and skill he brought to demonstrating it.

What hit me like a thunderbolt was the Or to this Either, Part 2 of the book in which he (or his pseudonym Judge William) argued for a solution at once rather like and completely different from Nietzsche’s. He too argued that in the face of the meaninglessness of the world and of life in it the answer was to be found within, in the will, which creates a self and a set of values out of nothing. The astonishing difference was in the attitude to the world that is to be overcome. Rather than rejecting and replacing it Judge William embraces and affirms it. The self and the values to be created by the will are the ones that already exist, the ones found, the same ones that were found to be without value.

The will can’t simply invent a new set of values, a new self, this is not possible. What it can do is choose to be who it (we) already is. The great task is to be who you already are, but to be this person consciously and as a matter of decision. Accept what you have been given, as a task and as a gift, anything else is futile and doomed to lead to despair and catastrophe. So says the Judge (or so I thought, it’s so long since I read him that I’d be quite ready to believe that my 26 year old self got him completely wrong).

Furthermore there was another stage in this path. The grounding of the value of the world in the decision of the self was unstable and impossible to maintain. It demanded, in order to be sustainable, that another movement be made, the leap of faith. This was the acceptance that the given, the self and the world, had value inherently, although this was impossible to show or to know. This acceptance relied on an act (or moment) of faith, which itself came as a gift and had to be accepted as such. The world had to be taken on faith.

Simultaneously with this discovery of a philosophical path to acceptance of the world I met a woman quite different from those with whom I had set up my patterns of failure (the woman who is now my wife). I saw that with her a different kind of relationship would be possible, a relationship that would enable and demand the kind of reconciliation with the world and with myself that I took Either/Or to be demanding.

I went next to Kierkegaard’s two great “psychological” works. First  “The concept of anxiety” in which he diagnoses anxiety as integral to the condition of being human. Our freedom is such that we are constantly faced with the possibility that at any moment we reject everything we are. Our continuity through time cannot be guaranteed and thus we have constantly to battle with the thought that everything might be swept away (by us) at any moment. He links this anxious freedom to original sin, saying that in the moment of awareness of freedom sin, evil, comes into being. He shows, however, that this is also the moment of salvation, where the possibility of faith is also born.

In the Sickness Unto Death he explores and analyses “despair” which he equates with sin and counterposes to faith, while also making it the precondition of faith. He argues that until one has known the despair that gives up completely the possibility of goodness or happiness it is impossible really to know the faith that depends utterly on the unknown origin of all that has value and worth.

The wonderful thing for me, at that moment, was the acuteness with which Kierkegaard knew, described and explored my true feelings about existence, the anxiety and the despair, and instead of trying to persuade me that I was wrong about how terrifying and bleak it all was told me that I was right but that this was not the end of the matter, There was a way out and that was to accept that while all that was had no inherent worth it could be given worth through faith.

This remains my basic conviction. I struggle with those varieties of Christian theology that insist that the world we know is good, that it has been redeemed. It doesn’t look or feel that way to me. To me the world seems profoundly broken and desolate, still. Only faith enables us to acknowledge the reality of human existence without collapse, it seems to me. I retain the melancholic’s unshakable conviction that those who deny the misery of life are either deluded or are trying to delude others.

My recent intensive exposure to the reality of the Holocaust, brilliantly conveyed and evoked by Yad Vashem and its staff, reminded me forcefully of this. Retaining a living faith is always a struggle but perhaps it’s useful to be confronted so directly by just how hard it is. The alternative to faith, for me, remains despair.

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4 comments
  1. Thank you for sharing this story Nick. I wanted you to know that I have read, listened, heard and appreciated. God bless you.

  2. H said:

    I’ve been following your writings for a while, and I find this interesting because I agree with pretty much everything in it (I disagree with Kierkegaard inasmuch as he’s claimed by the existentialists, but that doesn’t seem to be relevant to your argument) and yet you and I have reached very different conclusions: to whit, you seem to have become a Calvinist and hopeful, whereas I am a hopeless Arminian.

    So the issue I can’t reconcile with your view is that I am certain that human choice (under grace) is meaningful. For a choice to be meaningful requires it to be (a) free and (b) consequential.

    Condition (a) rules out irresistible grace, which is where I part with such august company as Calvin and Augustine and possibly Aquinas. I don’t do this lightly, but I cannot reconcile meaningful free choice with what is in essence an irresistible command.

    Condition (b) requires consequences in the eternal frame, for anything merely ephemeral is meaningless. It rules out, for example, an everlasting (ie, of infinite duration, as opposed to eternal, ie outside time altogether) afterlife in which everyone eventually comes to accept salvation and be redeemed.

    So this is where I can’t accept your Calvinism, yet I have not (and I’ve been thinking about it on and off for a couple of weeks) pinpoint a disagreement with anything specifically in this article (where I disagree with your hope is that as I look around the world, and into my own heart, I can’t see very many people actually accepting salvation: Heaven, I think, will be an echoing, empty place).

  3. Perhaps the different conclusions we come to are a matter of what we regard as the most essential of two aspects of faith that are in tension here. You would appear to have made consequential human freedom the single most determinant element of your approach to soteriology. I can understand and sympathise with this but I have taken a different starting point, A faith that is without hope seems to be not to be faith in the fullest sense but to stand closer to Kierkegaard’s knight of infinite resignation, as described in Fear and Trembling.

    We have the promise of salvation and if we are to be faithful to the new covenant whatever we think (and feel) has to include belief in that promise and in God’s intention and ability to fulfill it. I thus start from the position that whatever the case may be as regards our relationship with God it must be such that we have hope.

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