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William James sick souls and Kierkegaard's despair

William James the American pragmatist philosopher in his book "The Varieties of Religious Experience," had a notion of two different types of people; "healthy minded people," and "sick souls." Healthy minded people were people who were essentially seeing the good in something and making that the most important thing. Reality is seen to be good and bad is ignored or excluded. Healthy minded people feel happy and positive about things without any pre-thought or intellectual evaluation of the circumstances. Everything is experienced as good in of itself. Healthy minded people tend to feel at one with the world and with the divine. They take the view that is world is good, then as they are part of the world, they are also good. James calls healthy minded people "once born."

James though thought there was another another type of person, and that person was the sick soul. James thought the sick soul maximizes thoughts of the evil in the world and ignores the existence of the good, believing it to be unreal. James said the sick soul thinks "the world now looks remote, strange, sinister, and uncanny. It's color is gone and its breath is cold."

Some sick souls feel despair, anguish, and complete lack of joy. Really profound sick soul feelings can include loathing, suspicion, fear, anxiety, and even suicide. James argued that while healthy minded people are happier, sick souls have a greater insight into the human condition and are more connected to religion because faced with the apparent meaninglessness of the world, they turn to religion to find an answer to their sick souled condition and possibly a new way to view the world. James writes, "the most complete religions would therefore seem to be those in which the pessimistic elements are best developed. Buddhism, of course, and Christianity are the best known to us. They are essentially the religions of deliverance; the man must die to an unreal life before he can be born into the real life." James thought if you could work through being a sick soul, you could become "twice born" through religions like Christianity and Buddhism. Admittedly I fall much more into the sick soul camp, than the healthy minded people camp, and need to be twice born.

Soren Kierkegaard the 19th century Danish philosopher noted that in his book "Sickness Unto Death," he thought that despair was a kind of sickness of spirit. The self for Kierkegaard is a kind of composite of various elements; finitude and infinitude, possibility and necessity. When these elements that constitute the self become out of balance, despair is the result. Despair for Kierkegaard is a "sickness unto death," but unlike physical sickness does not necessarily lead to death. Unlike a physical sickness, then, despair does not simply run its course on being contracted but instead of simply killing someone it involves not being able to die, even when death would be an escape from the torments of despair. Despair for Kierkegaard also has nothing to do with what is external to the self. To despair is to despair over one's self, one's own being, one's own existential condition. Lastly simply because someone does not recognize that he is in despair, does not in fact mean that he is free of despair. He is simply unconscious of his despair.

In a culture such as America's with its obsessions with optimism and hope James sick souls and Kierkegaard's notion of despair are heavily frowned upon. In fact just yesterday in the grocery store I saw a magazine touting the glory and benefits of having a hopeful attitude. Can anything good come out of having a sick souled personality and recognizing that you are indeed in despair though? I think the answer is yes, and so did Kierkegaard. Despair is a type of suffering but this suffering can end "when the self is grounded transparently in the power that created it." What Kierkegaard thinks is that if we become aware that we are in despair and acknowledge it's presence, and then come to God we can overcome despair.

Both James and Kierkegaard thought that people couldn't stop being sick souls or in despair all by themselves. People needed religion and God to do that. America is a country awash in the talking point and cliche of "pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps." Personal responsibility and being mentally tough seem to be the answer for people to overcome nearly every problem in America, from getting a job, to overcoming poverty, to overcoming drug and alcohol addiction, to even overcoming mental health problems. I don't mean to suggest that people don't have some agency but I think American society vastly overestimates how much agency will all really have, and some problems like being a sick soul or in Kierkegaardian despair can't be overcome all on our own. As the recovery program AA says, "we came to believe in a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." In fact looking for help can be act of political dissidence and even a politically courageous act in our culture of personal responsibility and late stage capitalism. Even if that help is from religions like Buddhism and Christianity and God. Thank you.

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