Foto: David Meulenbeld

'I learned from Kierkegaard: anxiety is a teacher'

Marjolein de Jong18 January 2021

When studying Pedagogy at VU Amsterdam, Geert Jan Blanken (63) became fascinated by the work of Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard; a fascination that never left him. 

How did Kierkegaard change your life?

„I came across a book about Kierkegaard in a Christian bookshop. I had cold feet initially. I thought: if I start this, I’m not sure where it will end. I didn’t want to get too close to the edge. After growing up in a family as part of a Baptist community it took a long time before I dared to question religion in any way."

‘It takes courage and life experience to discover that if you dare to reflect on this you won’t be struck by lightning or immediately go mad. In the end I discovered: if there is a truth at all, then there is a truth. You also need to be able to wrestle with it rather than desperately clinging on to it."

Thinking critically about God felt inherently sinful?

„Certainly. It’s a pattern you internalise. You feel you need to be careful you don’t end up on the wrong side of the line. After all, you don’t want to provoke God’s anger, or end up in hell. It’s hard to lose that mechanism."

„But it is just like human relationships. If you feel you can’t broach how things are going as otherwise everything will go wrong, the relationship is guaranteed to go awry. It can be a huge relief to express your concerns and that can be the salvation of a relationship. It’s the same with belief. If you’re not allowed to ask questions, you’re slowly killing something."

„I think I actually gradually started believing."

Did you lose your faith?

„I think I actually gradually started believing; that the belief in my youth didn’t have much to do with belief. I sometimes used to hear myself saying something about God and while saying it I thought: do I really mean this? I say less now, but I think what I do say about it is right for me."

„What appeals to me about Kierkegaard is his opinion on spirituality. The essence of this is that you actually don’t cling to dogmas. That you can fully enjoy everything that God has given, such as food, drink, nature and sexuality. If you focus on that, you love others and love life, without being dogmatic."

Why do you think Kierkegaard is still relevant?

„It’s because of the fact that he operates on the boundaries of psychology, philosophy and religion. That’s all part of being human. There is a need to look at a way of life that goes beyond our quantitative science. And yet, he is consciously left out of some overviews of philosophy. He can’t be a real philosopher because he starts from a religious premise."

Geert Jan Blanken

What do you think of this criticism?

„I think that people who say that are overestimating the independence of thinking. Doesn’t everybody have assumptions? Some assume that thinking can have an independent, objective start. I don’t think that’s the case. Philosophers have demonstrated the subjectivity of the truth."

„I do understand that you don’t call very apologetic things philosophy, such as when someone wants to prove that the resurrection of Christ took place. The way in which Kierkegaard lived his life is entirely philosophical and at the same time religious. Kierkegaard downplays thinking. Thinking is something wonderful, but you must put it into perspective. You can actually lose yourself in thinking about ideas or about yourself."

„It helps me to believe that even if I stop thinking, I don’t cease to exist."

What do you do when you lose yourself in your thinking? 

„I try to flip a switch to the here and now. Sometimes it’s about a philosophical derailment, but more often I’m just worrying. When you’re worrying, you try to get something under control. That’s nonsense. You can think endlessly about Covid but in the end it’s just a question of being careful. It helps me to believe that even if I stop thinking, I don’t cease to exist."

„You could say: go for a nice walk on the beach so you can empty your mind. I used to walk along the beach day in day out when I was young. But it doesn’t matter how much you walk, if that machinery is switched on, it will just keep on going. Even the sea gives you a reason to start worrying. Before you know it, you’ve missed all the beautiful things along the way."

What misunderstandings are there about Kierkegaard?

„Mainly that he was a gloomy person. He was actually a mystic who said that you should enjoy life. The keynote of your life can be joy. Not a superficial joy that brings immediate happiness, but rather a deep joy that involves acceptance and embracing the complexity and contradictions of life."

„Take existential anxiety, for instance. Everyone has it. Whether you’re afraid of death, of life or of the idea of the everlasting. Anxiety makes you alert for the things you really find important and it’s a teacher. The opposite of anxiety is love and trust. You can only fully experience that if you first dare to admit to that anxiety. You have to get through that. And what is more positive than being able to embrace the negative?"