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In terms of making meaningful and authentic decisions, we are a species walking a narrow bridge with two chasms framing our way: the finite and the infinite. On the finite side lie the fixed conditions of everything we are. These are the facts of our existence that force us to live in certain ways: the needs of our body, the wiring of our brain, and the pull and push of necessity. On the infinite side lies a universe of potential — all the things we think we might someday do or become, a future full of possibilities with no set course laid out.
Both sides have their sirens’ calls that beckon us with promises of comfort, and both risk rendering us unable to move forward authentically in our lives. For the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, the wise but hard task of life is to walk the path between these two abysses: to be neither finite nor infinite but find the middle way.
For many of us, the finite side, the reality and necessity of life, is all there is: a world that Kierkegaard calls “aesthetic.” The problem is that if we live only for our needs and whims, then life will rattle by without anything bigger. When we live only for the aesthetic, and embrace too fully the finite alone, we risk losing ourselves. We can do this in two ways. One is to become a slave to our desires — a kind of hedonistic automaton. Another is to become a faceless, uninteresting drone among the masses — or, as Kierkegaard put it, “an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd.”
Kierkegaard believed that the finite is not all there is to being human. There is also the infinite — the recognition that we have the capacity to choose and direct our lives in essentially any way we can dream. But spending too much time gawping at the cosmos of possibilities we face is not entirely healthy. For a lot of people, it’s terrifying.
Most of us can remember the anxious vertigo that comes in those “infinite” moments of life, when you leave your parents’ home, end a relationship, or stare at the blank first page of a novel. To know the infinite is also to be dreadfully aware of the vastness of the future. In a phrase Kierkegaard made famous (philosophically famous, anyway), this is to experience and know the “dizziness of freedom.”
For many people, the anxiety and panic that comes from confronting the vast potential of life is crippling. There’s a paralysis that comes in being unable to choose, because there are too many choices to make, and too many potential options to choose from. For so much of our lives we’re led by the hand by those around us, or we’re given easy and impulsive answers from our biology. However, a human is someone who can take stock of things and who can — who has to — make decisions that no one else will make.
Kierkegaard’s advice is that we must each “learn to be anxious.” We must take a stand where we will but get used to facing outward. We must take a step along that narrow bridge between the infinite and finite. After all, like a spinning top, we risk toppling and losing our very selves when we stop moving.
There’s a paradox in all this (and Kierkegaard is particularly fond of paradoxes) and we must hold two seemingly contradictory beliefs in tandem, while never giving sway to either.
We must recognize that we are puny and insignificant — primates running on hormones and synapses. But we must also recognize that we are powerful beyond belief, that each of our decisions reaches out into the future, and that our decisions define our future. Embracing and living with this paradox is a maturing of the soul and it is a necessary step in becoming a human being. As Kierkegaard wrote, “I will say that this is an adventure that every human being must go through.” We all live in contradiction. Wisdom comes in accepting that.
...even the richest personality is nothing before he has chosen himself, and on the other hand even what one might call the poorest personality is everything when he has chosen himself; for the great thing is not to be this or that but to be oneself, and this everyone can be if he wills it.
Christ was crucified because he would have nothing to do with the crowd (even though he addressed himself to all). He did not want to form a party, an interest group, a mass movement, but wanted to be what he was, the truth, which is related to the single individual. Therefore everyone who will genuinely serve the truth is by that very fact a martyr. To win a crowd is no art; for that only untruth is needed, nonsense, and a little knowledge of human passions. But no witness to the truth dares to get involved with the crowd.
It is the duty of the human understanding to understand that there are things which it cannot understand.
The thing is to understand myself: the thing is to find a truth which is true for me.
“An idea is something that won’t work unless you do.” - Thomas A. Edison
According to Søren Kierkegaard, we are each pulled in two directions: toward the "finite" or the "infinite." When we lean too far in either direction, we risk living stagnant and inauthentic lives.
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