Coping with coronavirus anxiety: Four lessons from Søren Kierkegaard

Brian Rosner writes about how we find a surprising source of help for coronavirus anxiety in Søren Kierkegaard.

As the weeks of coronavirus isolation drag on and look like turning into months, the highlight of my week is a trip to the shops; my wife and I fight over the privilege. However, the exhilarating freedom of escaping “house arrest” and the surprising ease of finding a parking spot are soon soured upon entering the supermarket. There you are greeted with the masked face of an employee dispensing hand sanitiser; you move around as if in a computer game avoiding some invisible menace, and stand meekly in the checkout line on spots on the floor 1.5 metres apart. It’s enough to rattle even the most tranquil spirit.

Surely one of the most unfortunate effects of the present pandemic is the rise in our collective anxiety — the dread that something really bad might happen. Will I get sick? Will I lose my job? Will we run out of money? Will my aging loved ones survive? Will things ever return to normal? The only certain thing is that there are no certainties.

It appears that we have entered a unique time for worry, on a truly global scale, of biblical proportions. For decades health professionals have warned that anxiety disorders are on the rise in Western countries. Now more than ever we are living in the age of anxiety. The example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave me some comfort in coping with my coronavirus disappointments. To whom might I look for help with my rising levels of anxiety?

The nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is a likely candidate for a couple of reasons. He remains influential to this day among philosophers, psychologists and theologians. In 1844 Kierkegaard wrote a book that has appeared in English translation as The Concept of Dread (1944) and The Concept of Anxiety (1980). Kierkegaard wrote it under the pseudonym Vigilius Haufniensus — or “Watcher of the Marketplace” — making it all the more an appropriate place to turn for help with supermarket angst.

Kierkegaard also helps because of his life experience. If anyone had cause to feel anxious, it was Kierkegaard. Søren and his brother Peter were the only two of seven siblings to survive the ravages of accident, disease and childbirth complications. His father even shared with his surviving sons the belief that he had brought a curse on the family and that God was punishing him by finishing off his children one by one. Later in life, Kierkegaard prayed: “O my God, my God, unhappy and tormented was my childhood, full of torments my youth.”

A defining moment of his adult life was when Søren broke off his engagement to Regine Olson, an anguished decision he returns to repeatedly in his writings. Kierkegaard is a kind of role model for angsty, overwrought people.

However, we must not regard Kierkegaard’s contribution to the topic of responding to anxiety as merely autobiographical. Undoubtedly, he wrote with his own difficulties in mind, but most of all he sought to think about human life in general, and in particular, life before God. Jean-Paul Sartre put it well: “Reading Kierkegaard, I climb back as far as myself. I want to catch hold of him, and it is myself I catch.”

For Kierkegaard, anxiety is “a kind of horror at an undefined possibility, a terrifying presentiment of some unknown but possible peril.” This captures pretty well what many of us are feeling in this unsettling time.

We may glean four lessons from Kierkegaard for our coronavirus anxieties.

Our age of anxiety is not unusual in history

Human beings’ sense of anxiety and alienation is as ancient as the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of our oldest surviving texts, in which humanity is portrayed as threatened with destruction for disturbing the slumber of the gods. For Kierkegaard himself, anxiety can be traced back to the very beginnings of human existence, and the way it is depicted in the biblical stories of humanity “falling” into sin. The quaint subtitle of his book, The Concept of Anxiety, points in this direction: A Simple Psychological Deliberation Oriented in the Direction of the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin.

Each of us exists with what Kierkegaard terms “objective anxiety” — a core insecurity, which is built into our mortal bodies. In the New Testament, one Christian writer describes human lives as “held in slavery by the fear of death.” Kierkegaard believed that we cope with this soul-level insecurity by seeking security in material goods, status and power, all of which ultimately fail to deliver. It is no wonder we feel anxious when such things are removed or begin to crumble.

To be human in this fallen world, living under the shadow of death, is to be anxious.

Without underestimating the scale of our present crisis, many periods of human history could be termed “an age of anxiety.” In the past the term has been applied to medieval times, seventeenth-century England and the periods following both World Wars. The first-century world could also wear the label, as the Pax Romana slowly gave way to more and more social upheaval. If you doubt the threats to ordinary life in that period, read Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas — the gripping historical novel about the Apostle Paul, who describes the cruel barbarity of everyday life in the Roman Empire in lurid detail.

To be human in this fallen world, living under the shadow of death, is to be anxious. As much as the comforts of the modern Western world have immunised us from it, human beings have always lived in an age of anxiety.

Live in the moment

For Kierkegaard, every action has “a moment” in which that action is willed. Part of his solution to the subjective experience of anxiety is to focus the mind upon the present and thereby not to catastrophise about the possibilities that still lie in the future. Predictions about the end of our current crisis have ranged from the end of May, to six months, to 1-2 years. Wondering too much about the future, while understandable, is unhelpful.

At this point Kierkegaard anticipates modern psychology and the practice of mindfulness. However, he conceptualises “the moment” theologically, counselling that when we are about to act in one way or another, with all the anxiety that is therefore aroused, we must see ourselves in that moment as those living before God, accountable to him for how we are living today.

Part of the answer to our anxious thoughts about the future is to remain in the present.  Pete Davis, an oceanographer at the British Antarctic Survey, took this approach to his missions to the South Pole, which due to weather considerations were of an undetermined length. The “worst thing to do,” he said, was to focus on when isolation would end. “The best thing to avoid is what’s going to happen in three months’ time, when you’ve only just started. All you can control is what’s going to happen today or tomorrow.”

Jesus said something similar: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34). In Jesus’s case, the advice to live in the present is only half the story; he goes on to urge that his disciples focus on something meaningful, seeking first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33).

Anxiety is an opportunity for faith

For Kierkegaard, living responsibly in the moment before God involves turning our anxious thoughts into prayer to a loving and trustworthy God. Anxiety can serve a purpose. Alluding to the Grimm’s fairy tale, “The Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was,” Kierkegaard comments positively: 

“This is an adventure that every human being must go through — to learn to be anxious in order that he may not perish by never having been in anxiety or by succumbing in anxiety. Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.”

For all his angst, Kierkegaard sees anxiety as a strong incentive to turn to God and find peace in a posture of hope and trust.

Notwithstanding his appeal to existential philosophy, for Kierkegaard anxiety is a summons to place one’s faith in Jesus Christ. And that faith is expressed in fervent prayer, seeking to become the person that God wants us to be. As it turns out, a number of studies show that prayer is associated with well-being and physical health and find that those who pray are less likely to become anxious and depressed. For all his angst, Kierkegaard sees anxiety as a strong incentive to turn to God and find peace in a posture of hope and trust. He prayed, “Teach me, Lord, to breathe deeply in faith.”

Find joy in the midst of anxiety

In spite of his haunted childhood and experience of trauma and torment throughout his life, Kierkegaard found joy in the midst of suffering. This can be seen over and over again in his “startling prayer life.” Karen Wright Marsh explains:

“Prayer, Søren’s ongoing conversation with God, became the source of his greatest earthly happiness. Søren likens prayer to a gyroscope, a practice that balances him come what may. Happily for you and me, he recorded his prayers in a journal. On those pages, Søren speaks frankly to God of his questions, confidence, doubts, joys, pains, consolation, suffering, love, longing, depression. It is all there.”

The brooding, overwrought philosopher is able to pray:

Father in Heaven! Help us never forget that you are love. This conviction will triumph in our hearts, even if the coming day brings inquietude, anxiety, fright or distress.

Kierkegaard recommends a simple strategy for experiencing joy when feeling anxious about the future. In his book The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air, Kierkegaard reflects on the instructions of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount not to be anxious (Matthew 6:26-29):

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? … And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these.

Kierkegaard believed that observing such vignettes of the natural world could be a source of deep joy. To ease anxiety, Kierkegaard recommends focusing your attention on positive and happy things in the natural world as a joyful reminder of God’s care for all of creation. But his call is not just for the practices of ornithology and gardening as a welcome diversion or a form of romantic escapism.

Observing birds and lilies offers a concrete way of living gratefully in the moment before a faithful and loving God. According to Kierkegaard, birds and lilies take our minds off the dread of a bleak future and offer the individual “an unexpected foretaste of paradise,” giving us a glimpse of a world to come in which the age of anxiety will be fully replaced. They reassure us that God has not abandoned us or his world.

In this light, the current social media trend of posting pictures of positive, happy images as an aid for soothing our anxieties — oceans, mountains, beaches, lakes, flowers, trees, pets and so on — might have more to it than we realise. Maybe we should share pictures of birds and lilies too!

Kierkegaard might say four things to calm our anxious thoughts during the coronavirus crisis: don’t be surprised that our tranquil times have turned into an age of anxiety; live in the moment; view anxiety as an opportunity for faith; and find joy in the midst of anxiety.

Brian Rosner is the principal of Ridley College, Melbourne, and a Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity. He is the author of Known by God: A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity and editor of The Consolations of Theology. (This article builds on the chapter in Consolations, “Kierkegaard on Anxiety,” by Peter Bolt.)

This article first appeared in ABC Religion & Ethics.