Kierkegaard instead of Prozac? That is the suggestion of Dr. Gordon Marino—leading Kierkegaard scholar, professional boxing coach, and author of The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age (Harper Collins, 2018). Marino is no stranger to the wicked twists and pulls of anxiety and depression, and neither, he argues, were the existentialists. Soren Kierkegaard—often recognized as the first existentialist—Sartre, Camus, and others explored our radical and terrifying freedom, radical because our moral choices can’t be based on objective grounds and terrifying because we are responsible for our choices. For most of the existentialists, it is in anxiety that we come to realize that we are free. With this in mind, Marino expresses concern about our tendency to medicalize experience and turn to prescription drugs for disruptive feelings such as anxiety and depression. When it comes to certain forms of human suffering, Marino suggests that there is some good medicine to be found in Kierkegaard and company. Marino’s engrossing Survival Guide offers, first, an analysis of Kierkegaard and other existentialists’ writing on the topics of anxiety and depression and, second, reflects on four values, namely, authenticity, faith, morality, and love, that he takes to be at the core of what it means to be a human being.
The Survival Guide is both a page-turner and thought-provoker. Furthermore, it encapsulates the notion that a work of philosophy can and should inform our lives—leaving readers with substantive ways to apply the values of authenticity, faith, morality, and love to life in an unpredictable world.
I had the privilege of sitting down with Marino to discuss everything from his experiences with depression to close readings of seminal existential texts.
What inspired you to write The Existentialist’s Survival Guide?
Gordon Marino: It seemed like I’d been walking with Kierkegaard for 30-some years, and I wanted to be able to distill some wisdom from that relationship. And being in my mid-60s, it seemed the time to do that. People forget that philosophy is all about wisdom, not about knowledge. It’s philosophia [love of wisdom, sophos]. Wisdom is an understanding of how to live, whereas knowledge is an accumulation of facts and information. I think Seneca says, if you study philosophy and you don’t return a better person every day, then you’re wasting your time. That has always resonated with me.
Kierkegaard is the central figure of your book. When I’m anxious or depressed, reaching for a copy of Fear and Trembling isn’t exactly the first thing I’d think to do to feel better. Could you tell me more about your first encounter with Kierkegaard and what initially sparked your fascination with him?
GM: I was drifting through a period of a couple of years when I was really on the edge of the abyss—I went through a bloody divorce, developed some serious substance abuse problems, got in some trouble, and was hospitalized. One day, I was in a bookstore browsing. I was early for an appointment with a psychiatrist. I saw this book of Kierkegaard’s and started reading. It was pure light. I stuffed it under my coat and devoured it when I got back to my apartment. Kierkegaard helped me make sense of suffering. He made me feel like suffering was not just something you suffered passively but an activity you could do well or poorly. Up until then I felt like anxiety and depression were just diseases, maybe a stench would be a better word.
We are often told that we need to get rid of feelings of anxiety and depression. You say, however, that, when they are “prevented from ransacking our existence” (and you acknowledge that they certainly can and will do that), anxiety and depression can actually provide a form of wisdom.
GM: Yeah, I think in order to be good human beings, we have to be able to deal with anxiety and depression. The existentialists address these inner obstacles, but we get very little practice sitting with painful moods today. In order to be a good person, we have to reach through the pain and get outside ourselves even when we feel lost in a funk.
Kierkegaard said that anxiety is the “dizziness of freedom.”
GM: What Kierkegaard offers is what philosophers today might call an “embodied epistemology,” meaning you come to understand your freedom through the experience of anxiety. It’s through anxiety that you appropriate what it means to be free, that we have choice.
Existentialists didn’t sugarcoat the fact that the world can be harsh, and there are many things we can’t control. Anxiety can make us afraid of all those things we can’t control, so where does the freedom come in?
Well, I can’t control what happens, but to some extent I can control how I react and how I interpret what happens.
This book revolves around mental health. Our culture has certainly been making some good steps forward in terms of our understanding of mental illness…
GM: (Interrupts) No, no I’m not so sure about that. The way we think about mental illness and about what it means to be a self, is profoundly impacted by economic institutions. For example, support for dynamic forms of psychotherapy went out the door when insurance companies didn’t want to reimburse for it anymore. Giving everyone pills, many of which have side effects, was much cheaper for insurance companies. This way of understanding our emotional lives relates to Foucault and his insistence that the vocabulary with which we think about our lives, the way we understand our very selves, is largely determined by institutions like insurance companies and Big Pharma.
You say in the book that we’ve been made to think that neurotransmitters are the sole cause of our thoughts and moods. We ignore how factors outside ourselves affect our neurochemistry—as you say, “the sword cuts two ways.”
GM: One of the points that I emphasize in the book is that we have a relationship to our emotions. To be a human being is to have certain feelings that come and go through us, but we have choices about how to relate to those. It’s kind of like an observing ego. This is related to Kierkegaard’s distinction between despair and depression. For him, depression is a feeling, a mood that you might not be able to control, but despair is an ignorance of being a self, it is a matter of giving up on the project of being a self. It’s not a feeling, it’s an activity, a state of the self or rather a state of giving up on being a self.
Can you talk more about this project of becoming a self?
GM: I use the example of someone who says, “Caesar or nothing.” You know students who are obsessed with getting into med school. That’s their ideal self and they don’t want to be their concrete selves. If they don’t get into med school, they hate themselves, in a way they want to be rid of themselves. Kierkegaard thinks there are three selves—the concrete self, the ideal self, and the self you are meant to be, the spiritual self. He says that the person who doesn’t get to become Caesar, who doesn’t get to realize their vision of themselves, their ideal self—say as a med school student—then they don’t want to be their concrete self. All the while, however, they are missing the task of becoming the spiritual beings that we were meant to be.
Kierkegaard also says that the person who realizes their ideal self, who realizes their dreams and ambitions, is also in danger of failing to become their true self, because they confuse the ideal they aspire to be—again maybe a doctor—with becoming their true self. They think they have made it—and the world is probably telling them that—but it is one thing to be successful at your job or whatever and another to become fully human.
Again suppose the real task in life is to become a loving human being, not to become a doctor or a well-known author… The true task in life is to become a self. And it’s either that or be in despair. Contrary to popular views, despair is not a feeling. It is a state of being, a state of either not knowing that you are a spirit/ self and/or of not wanting to be that self. For Kierkegaard, you can’t be depressed and happy, but you can be in despair and be happy.
As a college professor, does this belief influence your interactions with the stereotypical ambitious student who comes into your office with all their hopes and dreams set on one thing?
GM: It does. That’s an important part of life to have those hopes and dreams, but it’s important not to confuse those with the task of becoming a good person. For a lot of us, ambitions are a kind of armor used to protect ourselves against self-hatred. People think “I’m good as long as I keep getting recognition.” It becomes kind of an obsession you have to keep accumulating. You can’t love yourself until you do x, y, and z.
This self-loathing (Kierkegaard says depression leads to self-loathing) is inherently bad because it distances the concrete self from the self that is connected to the spirit?
GM: He thinks that, in the case of self-loathing, you don’t want to be yourself. In college, I was a football player and I was completely obsessed with making it to the NFL. When it didn’t happen, I didn’t want to be myself anymore. I became suicidal. It is both sad and silly, but football was my only identity, all I cared about. I wanted to be rid of myself rather than be stuck with someone I didn’t like, or in my case, someone who was excluded from the Elysian fields of the NFL. But to repeat, Kierkegaard would say the real despair in such situations is that you’re ignorant of the task of becoming a true self. Kierkegaard believes we’re born to be a certain kind of person, and for him it’s a child of God. It has a lot to do with faith for him. People today think of the self as a creation—you become yourself to the extent that you create yourself. The self is seen as a kind of work of art. Nietzsche held that view. They’re very different perspectives on the self…how do you choose between them? Kierkegaard insists there’s an either/or. You have to make a choice. It’s a leap of faith. There’s no criteria that you can come up with to make that decision of what kind of human being you should aim to be.
As a reader of Kierkegaard, have you chosen to make that leap of faith to believe that there is a true self?
GM: For me it’s a matter of striving. I struggle to be faithful to the idea of a true self. In hard times, when things get tortuously bad and it feels as though life is meaningless, as though nothing matters and that there is no use doing anything—besides eating pizza and watching Netflix. At those painful points, I try to retain the imagination to believe, to avoid numbing up, to remain steadfast to the duty to love, to hold hands with others in life. And I say my prayers, even if it is a paradoxical exercise in praying to believe that there is a loving God there to pray to.
I really like the way you organize the book, starting with what challenges us most —anxiety, depression, death—but then transitioning to values to live by—authenticity, faith, morality, love. How do you personally try to live by those four values?
GM: By striving. By maintaining an awareness. And I try to talk about the impediments to it. In the love chapter I talk about how hard it is to accept being loved for who you really are. One of the things I’ve come to recognize is how wonderful it is to be with a person for a lifetime who knows what a jerk you are. Most of us want to be loved for our ideal selves or want to be admired, but to be able to accept love from someone who really knows you is simply miraculous.
So, it’s not only being able to give love but to accept it.
GM: Yes… One of the things I hope to write about is how many people in the world have no one who ever listens to them. Most of the boxers I’ve trained from the immigrant community grew up in environments with some scary stuff going on, parents working two and three jobs. It would have seemed frivolous to moan to your mom after she got home from cleaning houses all day—I’m so upset because I didn’t make the soccer team. But it is not just a matter of income, I have known plenty of wealthy students whose parents were either too self-absorbed to listen or just couldn’t tolerate hearing about bad stuff, anger or sadness. And when you have never had anyone to listen to you, it becomes hard to listen to yourself.
A lot of people relate everything to themselves. They can’t clear their mind and let the other person in. In class, I try to draw a connection between listening and close reading…line by line stuff. When we do this I glance around and find a lot of times students aren’t even looking at the text. I tell them they have to clear their mind, stick with the words on the page. And the same is true with being a good empathetic friend. You have to clear your mind and focus on what the other person is saying.
I’ve never thought of close reading in that way before.
GM: With close reading you see the complexity of the thinking. If you read Kierkegaard line by line, then you see all these epiphanies in-between the lines and the real beauty of the text as opposed to the main ideas that you could just as easily glean from a textbook or SparkNotes.
If you were to recommend a work of Kierkegaard’s to someone who has never read him, what would it be?
GM: The Sickness Unto Death. The first two pages are very intimidating, but once you get past that, it’s an amazing book. That’s where he talks about the meaning of despair and the different forms of it. It’s like a spiritual DSM.
You teach Kierkegaard a lot. Is there anything in particular about his work that resonates with twenty-first-century students or anything that is difficult for them to get past?
GM: They certainly resonate with the issues about anxiety, despair, and depression—some of the psychological things we talked about. The stumbling block is Kierkegaard’s claim that to be a serious human being is to trust in God. Nobody wants to hear about that. But most people want something “deeper.” They want spirituality without faith.
I can understand that. In Fear and Trembling, for example, he’s writing about faith through the lens of one of the most difficult biblical stories to swallow (the Isaac and Abraham story).
GM: Kierkegaard thinks people made the idea of Christianity and faith too cozy. He’s reminding people of the primitivity of faith and the awesomeness, in the horrifying sense of the word. He’s trying to make faith possible again by making it as difficult as it really is. He’s something akin to a Christian Socrates. Socrates removed false knowledge from his interlocutors. He’d question people, and they’d come to realize they don’t know something that they thought they knew. Kierkegaard tries to show people what it really means to be a Christian so they can decide whether or not they want to be Christians, as opposed to living in an illusion of being Christian.
I feel like Kierkegaard’s focus on the difficult parts of faith fits in with existentialists’ awareness and acknowledgement of the difficult things in this world.
GM: Right, he even thinks when things are going well for you in the world, you’re probably not in the fold. To be a Christian is to follow in Christ’s footsteps, and to be Christ-like is to face persecution and to make difficult decisions. So to listen to my Danish friend, if everyone’s patting you on the back, it’s likely you are going in the wrong direction.
That’s kind of a downer, honestly. Kierkegaard thinks if we’re not suffering, we’re not doing it right, or if we’re not miserable we’re not living virtuously?
GM: (Laughs) No, he makes a distinction between happiness and joy, so he would say that people like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nelson Mandela experience a certain level of peace/ joy—which is something different from feeling party-time pleasure.
That can’t be an easy standard for most people to live up to.
I think another important message I talk about in the book is that one of the impediments of being a good person is our capacity for self-deception. We want to talk ourselves out of what the right thing to do is. There are all these ethics classes today, ethics workshops, ethics experts, but Kierkegaard says we don’t need more knowledge and/or skills of analysis. We need to be able to hold on to our moral convictions when doing the right thing is going to conflict with our short- and long-term interests.
So we have the knowledge to make the right choice, but it’s going to be difficult to make it?
GM: Indeed. Difficult because the right choice is going to involve a sacrifice. When I teach ethics, I try to remind students that these ethical crossroads can and will just jump out at you—out of nowhere. You’re walking down a street and see someone getting mugged—what are you going to do? You have a high-paying job but you learn that your company is exploiting people. What are you going to do? So I try to remind myself and my students that moral challenges usually don’t give you a long warning before they arrive on your doorstep, and you are faced with the decision of what to do—but also who you are going to BE.
You share stories in the book about your boxing career. Does your involvement in boxing in any way help you lead an authentic life or stay in touch with your true self?
GM: I grew up in some violent situations, so it was very helpful. We don’t get a lot of workshops in anxiety and anger, and the ways we deal with these emotions largely determine the kind of human beings we are going to be. By boxing in a good gym, you get supervised workshops on those issues that can help you develop more self-control and make you a less violent person.
Also, I’ve found that there’s many kids who’ve never had a good word said to them. They have rough circumstances at home, everyone’s screaming or breaking up, so they’re angry—they go to school, they get in trouble. No one ever slaps them on the back. They don’t get any affirmation. They come to the boxing gym and if they stick at it for a while, they get a lot of love, a lot of affirmation. Not just like, “Oh, I respect you,” or something like that, but, “Hey man, you’re good at something.” I’ve seen a few kids’ lives take off as a result of this.
You say you give these fighters positive affirmation when they stick at it for a while. You believe that positive affirmation must be honest and sincere, is that correct?
GM: For sure. And also, if you care about people, you’ll tell them what they don’t want to hear.
Since reading the Existentialist’s Survival Guide, the idea that has stayed in my mind most clearly is that we’re living in a chaotic world together and should take solace in the fact that everyone is trying to make sense of it together. I know you can’t boil it down to one soundbite, but is there one message that you want people to take away?
GM: I guess being able to be loving through difficult emotions, which again I think has a lot to do with being authentically connected to others. Walking through life holding hands.
That’s a prescription Kierkegaard would approve of?
Ironically enough, maybe not. He does not put so much emphasis on personal relationships. For Kierkegaard, it is through our love of God that we come to truly love our neighbor and ourselves.
Natalie Kopp is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio. Follow her on Twitter at @kopp_natalie.
Gordon Marino, Ph.D is a Professor of Philosophy and Curator of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College. In addition to the Existentialist’s Survival Guide, he is author of Kierkegaard in the Present Age and co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, New York Times Magazine, Wall Street Journal, American Poetry Review, and others.
You can purchase the Existentialist’s Survival Guide here or at any major book retailer.