I rarely look forward to seeing what’s trending on Twitter.
Color me surprised, then, when I saw #Kierkegaard making the digital rounds.
Immediately, I thought to myself, “Why the hell is a 19th-century existentialist philosopher trending on a website best known for its lack of philosophical nuance?”
Turns out, Joe Biden’s wife keeps a quote of his taped to the mirror, which reads, “Faith sees best in the dark.”
I figured I’d use this once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity to actually write something in accordance with the trends, as who knows when another chance like this will arrive.
If you’re interested, you can check out the piece I wrote on another Kierkegaard quote awhile back.
But for today's purpose, I’ll focus on what Joe Biden finds relevant, as it relates to what many of us might be feeling amidst a bleak political discussion.
Kierkegaard still has something to offer the modern world, especially when we consider the fact that organized religion is playing less of a role in people’s lives and in a society where consumerism reigns triumphant, making it hard to find joy, meaning, and purpose in life.
Many have turned to politics — and its corresponding ideologies — to fill the void that more traditional belief systems once inhabited.
That’s problematic when we consider how polarized the nation is, and how gridlocked our institutions seem to be.
So it is no wonder to me that Joe Biden finds solace in the following words:
“Faith sees best in the dark.”
— Søren Kierkegaard
We have taken to viewing politics as a nasty business, which is why we tend to avoid it as a topic at the dinner table even as we let loose on the digital forums provided by the internet.
And given the current political context — Joe Biden, who many on the progressive left don’t see as an ideal choice, versus the disaster of a two-term Trump presidency — it might be easy to feel caught in a spiral of despair, wondering if our political system will ever produce tangible change.
Biden doesn’t inspire the same sense of hope that Bernie Sanders did, at least for the younger generations, and yet here we are, faced with the short-term choice of what to do with our votes come November.
It’s precisely in such circumstances, however, that faith is required.
But faith in what? I’d say in the process of politics itself, not in guaranteed outcomes.
I also liked the answer put forth by the philosophers in the Quartz piece I linked to, so I’ll re-quote it here before offering my own reflections.
“It’s not a matter of being in a dark place and saying, ‘It will all work out’,” he tells Quartz. “You’ve gone beyond that, there’s no hope or future, and no logical reason to keep going at all. It’s precisely then that you experience faith.”
It’s not a lighthearted sentiment. But when life seems incomprehensible, these philosophers are saying, Kierkegaard’s writing can be an irrational source of solace.
Put another way, life is a series of problems, and there’s no escaping that fact.
How we rationalize that, and more importantly, deal with it, is what’s important.
A great deal of our suffering — if we’re to borrow from the teachings of Buddhism for a moment (there are some striking similarities between Kierkegaard and Eastern thought, which I’ll talk about below) — is the result of ruminating over our problems rather than directly tackling them.
To quote the British philosopher Alan Watts, a popularizer of Eastern thought for Western audiences, “There will always be suffering. But we must take care not to suffer over our suffering.”
Reworded for politics: there will always be heated, vitriolic disagreements, but we must take care not to give up due to this fact.
Thich Nhat Hanh — a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist — also gets at this in his own way, using the Buddhist teaching of “releasing the arrow,” which I wrote about a while back as well.
There is a Buddhist teaching found in the Sallatha Sutta, known as The Arrow. It says that if an arrow hits you, you will feel pain in that part of your body where the arrow hit; and then if a second arrow comes and strikes at exactly that same spot, the pain will not only double, it will become at least ten times more intense.
— Thich Nhat Hanh, No Mud, No Lotus
Living life is like walking into a constant hail of arrow fire.
What hurts us?
The loss of loved ones. Financial misfortunate. Depression and anxiety. Political defeats. Endless tragedies playing out all over the world.
The list goes on and on.
When we wake up to the reality — usually sometime in adulthood — that life isn’t going to get any easier, and that it may, in fact, get harder, it can feel as if we have stumbled into a darkened experience in which we question if there is even a point to living at all.
This is why life has often been referred to as a “veil of tears.”
One of my favorite thinkers, Joseph Campbell, had something to say about life’s neverending sorrows, which can be thought of as a tragedy.
Tragedy is the shattering of the forms and of our attachments to the forms; comedy, the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible.”
— Joseph Campbell
What he means here is that we get attached to the forms of life, such as our loved ones, and then life takes it all away.
Whether we are fortunate enough to experience that slowly, such as growing old with the ones we care about until we watch them slip across the threshold of death, or if it happens rather suddenly, such as in a tragedy, it makes no difference when it comes to the pain we all eventually have to deal with.
What to make of a life that always terminates in death, and our own self-awareness that this is so?
There are no easy answers.
Kierkegaard regarded that as a fundamental problem, which is perhaps why we think of him as the first existentialist philosopher.
Listen to the cry of a woman in labor at the hour of giving birth — look at the dying man’s struggle at his last extremity, and then tell me whether something that begins and ends thus could be intended for enjoyment.
— Søren Kierkegaard
Sure, but he’s got a point.
Being surrounded by so much pain — which the news seems to focus exclusively on — makes it hard to see life as a joyful experience.
Furthermore, when it comes to the political struggle, it is always a struggle, never a final victory.
Final victories demand absolutist thinking, and absolutist thinking can only ever bread zealots and ideologues, who Kierkegaard fiercely opposed.
If we, however, realize that we never actually get what we want out of life in exactly the way that we want it — especially when it comes to our political vision — we find ourselves once again confronting an experience that feels like a constant slog, not altogether unlike Sysiphus rolling the boulder up the hill, only for it to fall back down, forcing him to repeat his toils for eternity.
So we circle back to the conditions in which we find a need for faith.
Kierkegaard was no God-fearing man, however.
It would not be right to say that he inclines us to have faith in God, and therefore free ourselves of our responsibility to life and its problems.
Quite the contrary, he saw organized religion as getting in the way of living a life of genuine commitment to spiritual ideals.
He wittingly gets at this in a quote that I’m sure many will readily relate to the context of a Trump-loving conservative America that claims itself Christian, yet might readily bar Jesus Christ from speaking at their convention for fear of his message.
“The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.”
— Søren Kierkegaard
For many, that’s what it comes down to. One side of the political aisle wants to actively do something to help the dispossessed, the other is in favor of maintaining a status quo that leaves so many behind.
And so we find politics to be a nasty affair.
That’s to be expected, as it’s the business of problem-solving at the societal level, and at that level, how can it not bring out the worst in us?
It can, however, bring out the best in us. In fact, I think it’s largely done that throughout time, despite our blood-soaked history.
In my view, that’s why we’ve even reached the present moment.
It’s easy to be cynical and to look around at a world still languishing under oppression, and then to rage and critique it as if we’ve made no progress.
But we are undoubtedly living in a world that is less brutal today than in centuries past, and what do we have to thank for that?
Humanity’s good-nature and its ability to creatively solve problems, including moral ones.
Sure, it’s been a slow journey getting to where we’re at, but we’re still walking in the right direction, even if it doesn’t look like it, and even if some occasional bad actors — try to move us backward.
So I would say that within the darkness of life — and the problems it throws at us — the faith that Joe Biden, as well as Bernie Sanders, and others like them have is not to be found in God or religion or this or that, but in human beings’ ability to overcome their differences and work on solving problems, despite the fact that’s always going to feel difficult.
That’s hard, scary work.
Who among us really wants to commit to that?
It takes tough skin to be a politician — they may receive all the praise when things are going well, but they also take all the blame when things go wrong.
Almost as if the public is never satisfied.
I still find the perspective offered by Kierkegaard within the Biden context to be a valuable one, however, because who honestly expects that change — indeed even revolution — is going to look like a once and done series of sweeping victories?
I no longer think so.
Politics is always going to be a messy business of consensus-building which necessitates a slower pace, and perhaps it will always lag behind where some of the more idealistic among us would like it to go, but we have to learn to accept that, have faith in the process, and keep pressing on regardless.