Kierkegaard at Thanksgiving

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Those familiar with this post or podcast will know I take seriously my work of taking all comers into the deep end of the pool. This is because I believe far too many of us live within the fiction of the surface-level existence and our world lacks fewer and fewer voices who can lead us into the depths of true spiritual transformation. This means that we must be intentional about learning about our existential and ontological reality. So for fun as well as perspective, I thought it would be interesting to invite Sören Kierkegaard to Thanksgiving this year, so we can regain a lost perspective and reflect on our American Holiday.

Since Thanksgiving has fallen victim to commercialization it has drifted far off the bubble for many decades and most modern people only know it only as a day of football, turkey, and family get togethers. This got me thinking about true gratitude and the canyon which exists between our ontological reality and the third Thursday of November. Below are three levels of thanks which I have pressed through Kierkegaard’s work; “A Sickness Unto Death.” I hope you find it entertaining as well as thought provoking.

  1. Unthankful Thanks: “I’m thankful things are not worse.”

This type of gratitude is actually an illusion. The person who expresses this kind of thanks is living in the lowest and worst state of despair–which is…to be in despair and not know that one is despairing. The despairing soul has no capacity for true gratitude because it does not know itself as a self found transparently in God. The illusion is to believe that the persona which goes to work, school, religion and throughout the world is actually who this person thinks themselves to be. The unknown self cannot give thanks because as Thomas Merton would say, he or she cannot and does not ultimately exist.

So the life of fiction says “Thanks” but the sole object of this thanks is exclusively upon this shadow of self being preserved and the true soul not being found out. Gratitude is not reached, only a sense of “gladness” that a more severe and honest state of despair has not been realized, or some worse event didn’t befall the illusory life and thus wake a person up to his or her real state of despair, whereby he or she is despairing of not being a self.

The way to gratitude for this soul is to sit in the stillness long enough to reflect on one’s life asking the existential question: Who am I…really? or Who am I…in Truth? or Who am I…in God? Once it is seen that he or she is not one’s vocation, hobbies, family, zip code, religion or community, then that will be the first day awaking from the anesthesia of one’s pseudonym. It will be the first glimpse out of the portal which can see authentic gratitude, though it is still a long way off.

2. Objective Thanks: “I’m thankful for my many blessings.”

This next type of gratitude has for the first time a sense of self, though it may only emerge periodically in punctuated life events. This reveals, as does the first type, that this type of thanks also comes from despair, but not the despair of not knowing one is despair, and not being able to be a self, but rather to be despairing of not being able to escape ones self. To appreciate one’s blessings and good fortune is in one sense a noble endeavor when one realizes such graces are gifted into ones life despite and not because of ones actions. However, while noble in one sense, this is despair in another.

So long as the blessings and good fortune align with a person’s desire to “be” what they are not yet, then that person is seeking to escape the despair of being themselves by, in despair, trying to be something or someone else. Even if that something else is a “better version” of themselves, it can only be a better version of the despairing self which is still in despair. The good fortune and blessing is only such because it allows an incremental escape from the despair of being ones self.

Thus the gratitude has an object and is therefore objective, but the object is but a balm to quiet the burning despair of a soul not willing to be itself before God. The thanks then, is toward those objects which mark one’s progress or prosperity or success or shelter from suffering, even if such marks mask the despair of not willing to be one’s self with happiness and good fortune. The desire to be a prosperous self or a self not in pain is essentially the creaturely level of existence and lacks the self awareness of being an eternal soul within the context of creatureliness. Like a fox finding a hole, or a bear finding a fish, the gratitude doesn’t truly reach an existential level, but only a realization of survival and creaturely advance.

This type of thanks is transcended when this person conceives of them self as a dialectic and as such, as both creature and spirit. Creature in that our finiteness requires constant sustenance until it ultimately declines and gives way to the infinite (spirit) aspect of the self, found transparently in God (who is spirit) from the foundations of time. Gratitude which emerges from the infinite back toward the infinite is the only gratitude which can ultimately become true thanksgiving.

3. Subjective Thanks: “I Thank God for God.”

To conceive of infinite being and of being infinite within this infinite being is the ultimate existential reality whereby all things are possible. Possibility then is the fruit of gratitude because it means that faith exists. Faith is that aspect of thanksgiving which makes thanksgiving even possible, because it holds onto to the infinite reality that all things are possible with God. Faith then is the affirmation that the infinite being is not an object held afar or even at arms length, but a subject, a persona, a being, or “being” itself which as James Finely would say is lovingly giving itself away as the concrete reality of my creatureliness and life.

To conceive of oneself as a dialectic of spirit and creature, infinite and finite, means that the subjective reality of God has manifested him/her self in and as both my finite and infinite life. To perceive this is a graced experience, and it is the only perspective from which the self is not longer in despair of not being itself, for it is indeed the true self, hidden in Christ and found in God. The thanksgiving which emerges from the self conceived in this way, is true thanksgiving and the essence of gratitude.

To live in this gratitude is to receive each and every moment, without judging it, grading it, or springing to immediately alter or manipulate it. Each moment of subjective thanks is a moment by moment receiving of a purposed, designed and graced reality whereby each moment is revealing the dialectic between the infinite and the immediate and what is required in each. Both converging together in this moment, spirit and creature, subject and object, infinite and immediate, we live in fidelity to both in faith and in action, so that neither is muted nor lost in our experience of life.

May we all strive for this kind of thanksgiving. Today and every day.

Peace to you all.