The (Un)bearable Anxiety of Freedom

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard liked to convey the experience of human freedom through a metaphor of vertigo.

“If I look over a cliff and feel vertigo, it tends to take the form of the sickening sensation that I might, compulsively and inexplicably, throw myself off the edge. The more freedom of movement I have, the worse this anxiety becomes. In theory, if someone tied me down securely near the edge, my vertigo would disappear, for I would know that I could not throw myself off and could therefore relax. If we could try a similar trick with the anxiety of life in general, everything would seem a lot easier.”

When paired with Jean-Paul Sartre’s notion that “I am nothing, therefore I am free,” 1 Kierkegaard’s metaphor alludes to the paradox of freedom. Though we may be free, that freedom comes at a very real cost of existential anxiety. The more nothing we are, the more freedom we have. The duality of this sentiment allows us to—at once—feel both empowered and terrified. To be nothing means that we possess the ability to become something, a state of existence which many of us crave. Like the uncarved block of wood exists in an undefined form, when we are nothing, we remain shapeless, ready to take the form of whatever we so desire. 

But what a terrifying conclusion! 

I can become anything? Then what shall I become? How do I know which path to take? How will I know when I’ve assumed form? What will bring me the most happiness? What if—as Kierkegaard feared—I impulsively throw myself off the cliff?

Many of us grow up in eager anticipation of the freedom we unlock as we age and pass by cultural milestones. Driver’s permit—check. High School Diploma—check. Turn 18—check. First Apartment—check. Turn 21—check. Bachelor’s Degree—check.

The difficult realization to face is that, though our perception of freedom seems to increase with each of these milestones, many of us feel that we were promised something very different from this feeling of clichéd responsibility and swelling existential anxiety.

It’s a remarkably human experience to recognize whatever glimmer of freedom we may have—to become aware of our control over some piece of destiny’s puzzle, however limited it may be—only to be struck by the dart of anxiety. It’s not a particularly enjoyable feeling, nor is it an anticipated one, but it is human.

This feeling is why many of us choose to trade aspects of our freedom for something a bit more predictable, a bit less volatile, a bit more…static. We buy cars. We buy houses, We commit to other people. We get jobs. We set our alarms for 7am.

In Sarah Bakewell’s At The Existentialist Café, she explores Kierkegaard’s vertigo-freedom through the lens of our modern society, offering a reminder that, “many of us try to convert our long-term decisions into real world constraints of some kind.”

This is not to say that these constraints—houses, partners, jobs—don’t afford us some alternative form of freedom; or that they don’t heighten our sense of well-being, as many of them do. The question at play is: are we trying to impose constraints on our freedom because we find—to return to Kierkegaard’s metaphor—the sensation of an impulse to throw ourselves over the edge unbearable?

How many of the decisions we make are based on the careful weighing of their impact on our freedom? Our well-being? Our happiness? And how many of them are made as a way to cope with the impossible frustration and anxiety of being?

As Kierkegaard wrestles with the vertigo-freedom problem, he ultimately makes the conclusion that, “it is impossible: whatever resolutions I make, they can never tie me down like real ropes can.”

The philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre echoes this sentiment: “freedom terrifies us, yet we cannot escape it, because we are it.” 2

“Freedom terrifies us, yet we cannot escape it, because we are it”

Constraints may quell our existential anxiety in the short run, but we’ll never escape it in the long run. 3 Once we come to understand this, we can make a shift. We can stop endlessly searching for ropes to tie us down. We can acknowledge whatever degree of freedom has been afforded to us. We can accept the feelings of frustration, anxiety, and uncertainty that come along with it. We can embrace the human condition and continue to walk the tightrope of uncertainty, fully aware that the nothingness that troubles us is the very thing that allows us to be free.

Footnotes

  1. If this idea intrigues you, but prompts slight panic/confusion, give Sarah Bakewell’s At The Existentialist Café a read
  2. Though not a direct quote from Sartre, Sarah Bakewell puts this idea forth in her aforementioned book—and it’s an idea that I quite like.
  3. Unless, of course, one holds true to the Keynesian logic of: “In the long run we are all dead.”