Monday, November 10, 2008

Reflections on Kierkegaard and Self-Hatred

I have recently been muddling through some of Soren Kierkegaard's work, The Sickness Unto Death. If you have never read it, picking it up will blow your mind -not necessarily because of its insight, although I believe it has great insight, but because of how difficult to read it is! Insecurity and self-hatred have been enemies of mine for a long time. I only recently came to see this. I always used to think that things like this were "psycho-babble." Kierkegaard, along with pastor Tim Keller and in particular his message "Blessed Self-Forgetfulness," has shown me many things about this and how, ultimately, it is sin that needs to be confessed and not merely a personal problem.

One of the things Kierkegaard talks about is what it means to "despair of the self." This, to me, was profoundly interesting because I could resonate with it almost immediately. Here is a great example:

"A young girl is in despair over love, and so she despairs over her lover, because he died, or because he was unfaithful to her. This is not a declared despair; no, she is in despair over herself. This self of hers, which, if it had become "his" beloved, she would have been rid of in the most blissful way, or would have lost, this self is now a torment to her when it has to be a self without "him"; this self which would have been to her riches (though in another sense equally in despair) has now become to her a loathsome void, since "he" is dead, or it has become to her an abhorrence, since it reminds her of the fact that she was betrayed."

What is the "self?" It is, simply put, like what we see in our own reflection, but with a mirror that looks deep into our soul and identity rather than merely our outward appearance.

If my wife left me, for example, and I felt like my life was over... what is really going on? Am I in despair over the situation? No, not properly. In reality, I am in despair over myself. I loathe the self that I have, and I long to be rid of it "in the most blissful way," by having my wife be mine. But if she left me, I would be losing that escape from the self that I have -the one that I desperately want to be rid of. To have her, in my mind, would give me a self worth having, a self worth being happy about. But otherwise, I am doomed as if to a prison. I despair of the self I have.

Now, this is where it gets even more strange. Upon reflection, I came to realize that one of the main reasons for my self-hatred is because I am insecure and tossed around and controlled emotionally by things like these. I despair of my self, in other words, because I see that the self I have is weak because it despairs in itself. Do you see the vicious cycle?

Kierkegaard addresses this form of despair and properly identifies it as self-righteousness, although without using those precise words. Thus, I see more clearly why self-hatred and puffed-up pride are essentially the same thing, but on opposite ends of the same deadly rope. To despair of the self because you see the self you have as weak and sinful is to say, "If I had a different self, If I was more like that person, If I was better in this area, I would be a self worth having." This is the same thing the religious legalist says when he cannot live up to his own demands. His ego cannot take that he cannot be as good as he thinks he should be. He longs to boast, but cannot, so he slumps in sorrow over himself. The self he lusts after he cannot reach, and so his failures are a torturous reminder of the self he has and hates. He cannot stand the sight of himself. When he comes across others who have seemingly done what he cannot, who have what he does not but lusts after, he cannot take any pleasure at all. These others are only a reminder which tortures his soul all the more. He hates them because they remind him of his bondage to the self he deeply hates and longs to be rid of. Thus, the only difference between this person and the puffed-up, arrogant individual is that the arrogant one is deluded into believing he has attained his own righteousness. He believes that, with that thing, he has arrived -at least for a moment. He boasts well, though he is truly deceived. His foundation is merely shifting sand.

Loathing ourselves because we are weak, did not do enough, failed, don't compare to others as we like, or might not have gotten it all perfectly right is self-obsession and self-righteousness scorned. We are not comfortable with ourselves because we are trying to build our own righteousness, and hence every failure is not merely discouraging -it is a stab into the heart. It is a reminder of the self we are seeking to leave behind, which we hate, which we believe is nothing, and which we are desperately seeking to recreate and establish apart from our Maker by using finite, created things and boasting in them.

Therefore, I came to see that despairing of myself because of my weaknesses and sins is abominable. It is not repentance. It is self-righteousness, it is idolatry, and it is something to be confessed as sin. It is wounded pride. In other words, it is the fruit of a lustful desire to create a self so worthy of our self-centered love and self-exaltation that we ideally would become our own god, worthy of self-worship.

The only sphere in which we can have significance, true significance, is in relation to our Creator. Anything else is a myth, a mirage, a phantom. Therefore, only with the Gospel are we broken free since it is only with the Gospel that we are re-connected with Him and able to be both wholly transparent and accepted. Faith, which Kierkegaard basically describes as the opposite of this despair (sin), is seen essentially as a rest in or acceptance of what God has done in Christ, through which we see we are transparently known and completely accepted. Faith amounts to transparency before and security in God. Only then can the self be at rest. And when it is at rest, when it is in connection with its Maker through grace, it no longer is bound in the chains of this insatiable desire to be rid of the self we have by idolatrously building our life on the finite. It is free. It is free to love and serve, for it knows it is complete. The self is "OK" and free to not be fixated upon itself.

The "solution" to this sin, then, is not more law. Law has its place in relationship, not in the area of self creation and justification. The solution is the believe the Gospel. It sounds so simple, doesn't it? This is where it gets hardest, and all of this is why grace is so foreign to us. As Luther once said (paraphrase), "we would more readily receive grace if we could earn it than have it for free."

In case we would begin to think that we are free from self-hatred and don't suffer from this, it seems it is a universal problem. It is the reason behind boasting, comparing to others, exploiting others, becoming angrily defensive in arguments, bitterness and unforgiveness, racism, hatred, self-righteousness, etc. It is sin at its most core level. The racist says, "my race is what gives me a self of significance," and thereby he looks down upon those of other races. The braggart says, "my achievements and talents and skills give me a self that has significance, better than those," and so he is pleased with himself, looking down on others less fortunate, though in reality he takes no pleasure in the things he has achieved or the things he is skilled in -only in being able to stand upon them higher than the next man.

P.S. I started a new blog with a bit of a narrower focus. Check me out at

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