The Despair of Distraction
The road to our essence, according to Kierkegaard
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Over the past few weeks I’ve been spending more time on YouTube than I feel comfortable sharing. When I tell you I’ve watched just about every blackhole video out there, I’d only be exaggerating slightly. In a way, it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: the algorithm has literally sucked me in past its ergosphere, past its event horizon, where neither time nor space hold meaning.
What lies within the mysteries of life that captivate me so wholly? Why is it that whenever my incessant fears of death come crawling out at night, or when I feel even the slightest inkling of anxiety prop up in my throat, my thoughts are promptly diverted by Brian Greene’s beautiful voice?
Our incessant need to find distraction from our unease is not a rarity; I’d even argue it is an innate part of our evolution. However, the ability to control our attention is also one of the most crucial attributes of our mental faculties. Though spending hours on YouTube, or incessantly scrolling through Instagram, or whatever, can give us some temporary ease, “unexpressed emotions never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in an uglier ways.” (Sigmund Freud).
Could we believe to be living a decent life, but are actually in a dire state of despair? Are these forms of distraction but a strategy we implement to hide our suffering, from others, but most importantly ourselves? “The common view, which assumes that everyone who does not think or feel he is in despair is not or that only he who says he is in despair is, is totally false.” (Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death). According to Kierkegaard, despair is a developmental failure of the Self. One despairs when one does not align with their potentiality. When one is not willing to “be the self which one truly is.” Like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard believed that humans are not a finished product, but an entity into which one molds. A process of becoming rather than being. When one becomes aware of their own empty self, we suffer, or rather, despair. To become our “self” involves the awakening of our potential which we have shunned so fervently through distraction and anxiety. Most people become stunted, and instead of progressing, regress away from their essence. We numb our being through alcohol, drugs, gaming, and shun all sense of feeling as we mindlessly pursue pleasure, and if not pleasure, than a state of blissful paralyses. Paradoxically, however, the more we feel our despair, the more we will find our own distinctive ways to overcome it. Despair, in short, seems to be our one ticket to personal freedom.
Many of us are unaware, or in denial about their suffering. We conform to society’s many blatant, as well as subtle, rules most of which focus predominantly on external success. Aesthetics, money, hierarchy, all form the bedrock of what it means to feel prideful in one’s Self. A long assembly line comes to mind, on top of which millions of crippled humans lay, withered, pale, and lifeless. Conformity, then, seems to be a blockage on the road to our internal world. “By seeing the multitude of people around, by being busied with all sorts of worldly affairs, by being wise to the ways of the world, such a person forgets himself…dares not believe in himself, finds being himself too risky, finds it much easier and safer to be like the others, to become a copy, a number, a mass-man.” (Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death). Unfortunately, precisely through losing ourselves in the masses, we gain all the attributes required to perform flawlessly in our daily lives. While we wither from within, we blossom from without. “Far from anyone thinking him to be in despair, he is just what a human being ought to be.” Conformity is a conniving, double-edged sword: it promotes despair while it simultaneously grants us a way out through self-delusion. Nothing is quite as easy as deceiving oneself.
Becoming conscious of our despair is the first step we ought to take. The second step is, according to Kierkegaard, to pick an ideal onto which we can shape our life, something to aim at, a point of singularity out there in the distance. This is best done through discovering a “passion”, or purpose. An idea, goal, life meaning through which we can give an authentic expression of our being, and will, ultimately, help us grow towards selfhood. As Nietzsche concurred in an unpublished note: “… set for yourself goals, high and noble goals, and perish in pursuit of them! I know of no better life purpose than to perish in attempting the great and the impossible.”
Unfortunately, we are more concerned with external values than the state of our souls. A pursuit of internal wellbeing can act as the remedy to the shallowness of our age. Kierkegaard’s take on despair should act as a needle that pierces through our bubble of self-deception, and motivates us toward further self-analysis.
Or perhaps, as usual, I am overthinking. Perhaps spending several hours on YouTube doesn’t have to be such a horrible thing. After all, it depends on what we watch, right? Yet it makes me wonder what else I do just to stop thinking, to stop feeling. How often do we go throughout our day, then fall asleep at night, only to realize that we haven’t actually experienced anything at all? We’ve merely existed throughout the hours? At times it is good to remind ourselves that we are a person, a human-being, living, breathing, unique. Do we treat this fact with the gravity (circling back to blackholes) it requires? Or would we rather exist without confronting such questions?