The coronavirus is a biological phenomenon that affects our social world. But what about the existential alterations? Søren Kierkegaard can help us understand fear and anxiety during pandemic isolation.
Isolated with my small family in our contemporary confinement in Copenhagen, which is still voluntary in my country at the time of writing, I wonder how to put words to what is happening around us.
Our social structure is changing radically as a response to a dangerous biological virus that threatens to take many lives especially among the vulnerable in our society. The crisis is both socio-political and natural. But one thing is the personal and existential ramifications of the corona-virus. Another thing is what arises inside myself in this situation?
The difference between exterior changes and interior responses corresponds to a distinction in the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard between fear and anxiety from The Concept of Anxiety. Fear, he argues arises on account of being threatened with something concrete. A big dog barks at you angrily and you are struck with fear. But the dog is concrete, it is visible, and you are totally absorbed with the idea of how to handle it. Anxiety, in contrast, takes a more abstract object, namely nothingness itself.
In one interpretation of Kierkegaard’s concept of anxiety, one could see COVID-19 as the exemplary object of anxiety. The virus has a more transient nature than the dog, not least because it is invisible. Our knowledge of its nature and effects depends wholly upon scientific experts, and health authorities and politicians are stepping into unknown waters when it comes to the measures employed to mitigate the spread of the virus. As such, the virus has a similar phenomenology as the pollution that sociologist Ulrich Beck investigated in his work Risk Society. The public response to pollution, Beck states in this book, would be anxiety.
However, Kierkegaard’s understanding of fear and anxiety is subtler still. The virus still has a name, and thus becomes concrete, and it has an external reality, it is a something. There are convoys transporting coffins that I can follow on the news. As such, the threat gains reality, however parasitic this reality may be. The threat of the virus surely draws extremely close, into my very body: my body may at this instance be hosting the virus and my sneeze may be a threat to the livelihoods of my neighbor. Yet, by calling it a certain name, I am able to externalize the threat, and thus it becomes an object of fear. If the external world changes, say when immunity has begun to spread or if government acts to diminish the threat in trustworthy ways, my fear will also diminish. In contrast to this, anxiety takes nothingness itself as its object.
Another interpretation of what anxiety means in contrast to fear can be found in the psychiatric diagnostic system DSM-V. It suggests that while fear responds to “imminent threats,” anxiety in its nature anticipates “future threats.” This more temporal distinction between fear and anxiety is also relevant for understanding the Corona virus. The virus has an imminent impact on our societies in the present; but we don’t really know what to expect! While China and South Korea appears to have contained the virus, it seems to keep escalating in Italy and Spain at the moment. How vicious can this virus be? Our knowledge of it is simply limited, and yet people put their analytic superiority on display on social media, shaming people for worrying to much or not worrying enough. Perhaps a call for shared solidarity in the unknowing is relevant?
So psychiatric diagnostics offers a temporal distinction between fear and anxiety. Yet, the distinction between fear and anxiety in Kierkegaard is subtler still. For also future threats may target us from the external world. Such future threats fall under the category of fear, in Kierkegaard’s terminology, that is fear of something definite.
In contrast to the psychiatric anxiety as a ‘future fear’, Kierkegaard’s anxiety takes nothingness itself as an object, more specifically the nothingness that can arise in myself. In fact, nothingness in Kierkegaard’s sense of the term is a product of human consciousness! Only human beings are capable of relating to imaginative possibilities for ourselves, in fact that is a part of our freedom. Even if the world were all peace and quiet, even if there were no cause of fear, anxiety could still arise, for it has nothing as its object. My future is open, and how I relate to the world holds infinite possibilities. I may relate to it all with a sense of utter freedom; but I may also find myself bound and alienated from the world in ever new ways as a response to this crisis. So, anxiety takes as an object the possibilities of nothingness that can arise within myself.
Under normal circumstances, anxiety only plays a role for me on the level of the unconscious. I am busy being myself, that is, busy working and caring for my family and my friends.
But now the external world is placing me outside of my comfort zone. The spread of the virus and the political responses to it break down the structures and habits with which I usually orient myself in this world. Suddenly, my surroundings have changed my life patterns, those matters of course that keep my anxiety at bay, not least going to work and sending my daughter into day care.
Suddenly I feel the fragility of my existence anew: How will I take this, how will I respond to this? Will I be caught sick in the immediate future with personal death as a real result? Or am I facing a form of social death: How will I respond to the isolation, how will we respond as a family, will our relationships still function after these weeks, or perhaps months, of isolation? Thinking about those possibilities can make me rather dizzy. No wonder that people stockpile noodles and toilet paper even as the trustworthy authorities assures us of the security of supplies; our anxiety prompts us towards action in the external world.
Of course, probably I will manage just fine. I sort of know myself, I sort of know my wife, I sort of know my little daughter. As a family, we have experience with being under pressure, and we have managed just fine in the past. Our ability to converse about difficult issues is pretty good, we are accustomed to taking everything step by step and as it goes.
However, thinking in terms of probability may soothe my anxiety, but it does not take away the possibility of newness, of radically new responses that may arise within us. Human existence is open towards future possibilities that we know nothing about.
Also, thinking in terms of probability externalizes the situation within which I find myself. It takes an outside perspective on life, which I really live from the inside. As such, it can become a pretext for inactivity. In contrast, I really sense the responsibility I have now for contributing to the course of action: In terms of washing my hands and sneezing into my armpit when grocery shopping. In terms of keeping myself informed about the latest developments and recommendations from Danish authorities. And in terms of contributing to the functioning of this confined small community that is my family.
I thank Sebastian Krug and Benedikt Friedrich for insightful questions and suggestions in the development of this reflection, and Simon Axø and the Danish radio show Supertanker for inspiration.