It’s a bit breathtaking that our reflection on the self was all about a single, introductory paragraph. And yet already we already have a better understanding of what Kierkegaard understands the self to be, or at least be about. Most often, we think about ourselves relating to other people, the external world of ourselves. Society, family, the government, our friends, our neighbors, strangers. These are all external things. But we don’t think so much about how we relate to ourselves, it seems to be second nature. We want to think of ourselves as individuals, single, complete, unified being. But we don’t take the time and especially effort to delve into ourselves as a process and development of constant re-encounter.
There exists an internal interplay about our selves that gets us out of the idea that the self cannot change. Fatalism and predestination are not part of the equation. In fact, the self is always changing. It has built-in the capacity to change because it is inherently relational. The self has an internal freedom to it and that freedom is always relational, if ultimately to the relationality within and of ourselves. We have the capacity to change because of the simple fact that we are relational. We are self-relational. Constantly. It never stops. Because it can’t. It’s a bit dizzying, actually, all this constant relating.
But how does it all start? If my self is constantly relating to my self, then where and when and who was my starting point? Biologically, it seems like the wrong question to ask: At conception? At birth? At consciousness? At self-consciousness? It can’t be pinpointed and it ought not to be. This is about the self as spirit. We’re not talking about spiritual bodies or bodies with spirits. At the risk of seeming to fall into the outdated and dangerous Cartesian “mind-body” duality, let’s affirm that we are talking about the self. And we will see that we are not as Cartesian as we appear.
Each of us is already in flux. We can only recall our earliest selves in relation to who we are becoming now. Even our earliest selves recalled are not our earliest been or became. There is no first-self known, an ur-self known having become. Each of us is always already having become in relation to ourselves. Dizzy, yet? Exactly.
We are in motion. We are breathing. We are becoming. What to do with ourselves? How do we bear, how do we put up with ourselves? Well, it comes down to a question of direction in relation. Do we understand ourselves to be solely in relation to ourselves or is there something outside ourselves that grounds us in relation to ourselves and itself? Will we go toward ourselves or try to escape? Either way, we’re still in despair. But are there better kinds of despair than others?
Kierkegaard states that either we are established by ourselves or we are established by something else, some other “power” he calls it. No matter what, we are derived. But if the self is self-established, then there would only be the question of wanting to be free of oneself, of the despair of the inability to escape oneself, because one is sick of oneself. There would never be any possibility of “equilibrium” and rest. The self would constantly careen relationally back and forth in an overwhelming and chaotic feedback loop of a self-destructive narcissistic solipsism of ever-deeper despair. That escalated quickly!
But if the self is established by something else, by some other power, then the self in relation to itself is able to relate to and with something else. There is an establishment beyond the self that provides a foundation, something to relate to, something to get outside of one’s self to get back into oneself. From this there is the second form of authentic despair: wanting in despair to be oneself. Through relating to that which is outside of ourselves, we desire to become ourselves. We dread not being ourselves. We anguish that we become who we do not want to become. We don’t feel like ourselves and we despair.
So Kierkegaard establishes at the end of his first section that there is something external, foundational, and wholly relational to the self. Not an object, but a “power.” And he gives away right from the beginning the definition of the self free from despair:
This then is the formula which describes the state of the self when despair is completely eradicated: in relating to itself and in wanting to be itself, the self is grounded transparently in the power that established it.
We are not self-caused and not self-made, not self-become. But what, but could we do about it? Can we be free from despair? In all honesty, do we really want to be? To steal from another Melancholy Dane, “To become or not to become? That is the question.”