A couple weeks ago, the world was swept by successive waves of absurdity and anxiety. The ripples began when the Danish prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, declared that President Donald Trump’s desire to buy Greenland was not in the cards. She described the prospect of selling the island, an autonomous territory tied to Denmark, as “absurd.” From these ripples burgeoned a tsunami of anxiety when Trump, calling the remark “nasty,” canceled long-standing plans to visit one of our oldest and closest allies next month.
Fittingly, Denmark happens to be the birthplace of the great explorer of absurdity and anxiety Søren Kierkegaard. During his short and controversial life—when he died in 1855 at the age of 42, he was in the midst of a fierce battle with the Church of Denmark—Kierkegaard wrote a staggering number of books on the nature of reason and faith. Two great leitmotifs in these books, all written under different pseudonyms, are the concepts of dread and the absurd.
What Kierkegaard means by these notions, however, is not what we tend to think they mean. And what this early figure of existentialism did understand about them might, in turn, help us better deal with our current moment.
A solid majority of Americans would, no doubt, extend Mette Frederiksen’s use of “absurd” to cover our nation’s past three years. Long before our president’s hissy fit when he was told Greenland was not for sale, the absurd had become routine. From the day this failed real estate developer and faded reality television star moved into the White House to the day we learned that his ambassador to Denmark is a onetime chiropractor and C-list actress, political absurdity has been our daily fare.
For Kierkegaard, however, the springs of absurdity bubble far below the chyrons spooling across our screens. The absurd, he suggested, is a kind of frontier or boundary marker—the point we reach when we grasp that what is most essential to our lives cannot be grasped, at least rationally. As a famous (but qualified) admirer of Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, put it, absurdity is born in the clash between the human longing for reason and the unreasonable silence of the world.
This is why the absurd as a philosophical concept has nothing to do with Trump stepping repeatedly on banana peels and falling, albeit all too often on top of innocent bystanders. This is a pedestrian sort of absurdity despite its tragic implications, no deeper than the absurdity embodied by Trump when, say, he embraces the American flag. (How absurd, Kierkegaard observed, that one becomes a patriot by “merely shouting about it … I had thought that by being a patriot one was a patriot and that was that.”)
Existential absurdity, on the other hand, has metaphysical implications. It is the sort of absurdity, Kierkegaard insisted, that confronts us with the most urgent of questions: “If a bottomless emptiness which nothing could fill were hidden beneath everything, what would life be, if not despair?”
This is the bottomless source of that elusive condition Kierkegaard called “angst” or anxiety. Americans have become well acquainted with a new psychological malady called “Trump Anxiety Disorder,” a condition marked by a crippling sense of helplessness and loss of control. But while this particular anxiety disorder is real—56 percent of Americans reported last year that politics had made them more anxious—it has little in common with the one identified by the Danish sage. In fact, Kierkegaard denied that true anxiety is even a disorder, instead claiming it as a paradoxical sign of health. Should someone boast of never being anxious, Kierkegaard harrumphed, it is because he is “very spiritless”—no doubt a polite translation for whatever the Danish word is for “thick as a brick.”
Anxiety, in short, is the existential canary in our inner cage—the vital sign reminding us not just that we are alive, but that we are also alive to the fact that we can choose how to be and who we are. Angst is as essential as oxygen if we are to live fully human lives, meaning lives that we choose to live. “If a human being were a beast or an angel,” Kierkegaard concluded, “he could not be in anxiety … the more profoundly he is in anxiety, the greater is the man.”
In the Age of Trump, the challenge is to identify and order our anxieties because they are not all equal. Rather than moderating the sources of chronic unease spurred by our president—the electronic and print media, for example—we instead multiply them, consuming more and more anxiety-provoking content. In this regard, Jennifer Panning, the psychologist who coined the term “Trump Anxiety Disorder,” has observed “an obsessive preoccupation with the news” in her own patients.
In order to avoid these marshes of melancholy, many of us make do with magical thinking. The most recent example of this all-too-human reflex was our recent and ridiculous hope that Robert Mueller would save the day and republic. At this point, even the Dane falls short. After all, our leap of faith toward Mueller was little more than a secular version of Kierkegaard’s leap of faith toward God. Both responses reflect our inability to accept that our fate is in the hands not of a mysterious but mighty being, but in our own hands alone.
But for those who refuse to believe that either a special counsel or God will save our skins, all is not lost. The absence of a savior does not mean there is reason for hope, Camus remarked, but it is also not reason for despair. If absurdity teaches us anything, he believed, it is that we have nowhere to leap but the place we already are and no one to turn to except one another. For this reason, Camus preferred the notion of rebellion, a notion that finds meaning in collective refusal to accept the absurd and seeks to impose limits on the excesses of others—and also on oneself.
In the face of Trump’s daily outrages, it is our absurd lot to accept this difficult, perhaps impossible stance. Our task is not just to accept, as Kierkegaard warned, the anxiety that comes with freedom. It is also to act upon it rather than react against it, to mold it rather than medicate it, and to hold fast to our friends—such as the Danes—and our humanity, which extends to one and all.