IT WAS ONE OF THOSE OVERCAST October mornings in College Station that look like they ought to be much colder than they are. I walked back to my south-side dorm from the Zachry Center in shirtsleeves, sweating, a zippy mock-turtleneck sweater over my arm. Zachry was an engineering building at the far northeast corner of the Texas A&M campus, a towering hive of tiny classrooms sunk two stories deep into the earth. Because it had so many spaces, it attracted courses from almost every department. Not engineering but Chinese 101 had brought me there that morning.
By this point in the semester I had realized that I would never learn Chinese in a college classroom. None of the other students were getting much out of the course either. Laoshi, confronted with the invincible ignorance of her first set of American pupils, had lowered her expectations accordingly. But we all stuck with the course, mainly because the Q-drop deadline had already passed.
I was taking Chinese because of an experience I had at a Southern Baptist summer camp in high school. The theme of the camp was international missions. A short preacher with an enormous bald head exhorted a dark auditorium full of adolescents to listen for the Holy Spirit to call them into the mission field. I closed my eyes and raised my hands and swayed through an atmosphere clouded with smoky stage lights and shimmery electric guitar. I opened my eyes. The guitarist tapped deftly at the pedalboard with his foot. The preacher’s pate shone. I glanced over at the girl beside me, a sickly, temperamental, and very, very holy auburn-haired waif on whom I had a desperate crush. Her face was all rapt reverence. Guiltily I closed my eyes again and tried to listen for the Lord. The band sang:
Ask and I’ll give the nations to you
O Lord, that’s the cry of my heart
The word “China” popped unbidden into my mind. On my inner television screen, a montage played: street dancers, the Great Wall, a street-festival dragon—images I’d gleaned from Big Bird in China, among other places. I’d never consciously desired even to visit China before that moment. Had I called up the country’s name for its very unlikeliness, or was that God’s voiceover narrating my brain’s preschool visuals?
My family first got the internet when I was in middle school. The ping-and-scratch of a 56k modem still quickens my pulse with its promise of discovery. Among the many images burned into my brain by our cathode-ray monitor two were literary texts. The first was T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. I have no idea where or how I came across it, but I remember feeling stunned, breathless, guilty—like I’d stumbled upon a cache of the most outrageous pornography. I copied and pasted the poem laboriously into Microsoft Word, printed it out, and stuffed it in a green Mead pocket folder that I wore flimsy and wrinkled with use.
Soon to join The Waste Land were a few pages of Søren Kierkegaard quotations, also copied from the web and pasted into Word. Unlike the Eliot, the Kierkegaard needed formatting, and I put it all in 13-point Geneva with a green Ø for each bullet point. I can still remember a few of the quotations, many of which were badly paraphrased or even bastardized. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” “You cannot have the truth in such a way that you catch it, but only in such a way that it catches you.” My favorite was about a thorn of sorrow that had lodged itself in his heart in childhood: “As long as it stays, I am ironic—if it is pulled out I shall die.”
Later, I added an article from The Guardian: a takedown of the brainless bromide that 9/11 meant the end of irony. I’ve looked it up in the paper’s archives since; it’s an excellent think piece by the British journalist Zoe Williams, though it’s perhaps outgunned by Eliot and Kierkegaard. It struck me then as incredibly sophisticated and morally urgent. The key to its appeal was that word irony.
Poring over the contents of my green folder, I baptized myself into irony. I read my way out of the adolescent sincerity of an inveterate good kid, out of the easy coincidence of my surfaces and depths. I pried a private self, a negative self—subversive, critical, even angry, sharp as the stroke in the Danish letter Ø—away from my upstanding public persona. I read and read, digging the thorn deeper into my heart.
By the fall semester of my sophomore year of college, even though I was preparing for a short-term mission trip to China over the winter break and muddling my way through Chinese 101, my confidence in my missionary calling was wavering—not least because of the language’s difficulty. I hustled towards my dorm. It was Friday; I was going home for the weekend and still needed to pack. Just before the intersection of Spence and Lubbock, a sentence smacked my brain and stopped me cold:
If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at bottom there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?
They were Kierkegaard’s words, and not from some internet repository of inspirational quotes. They were embossed on the cover of the paperback Fear and Trembling that sat on my dorm-room desk. I hadn’t known I knew them, but they came to me there like an oracle, balking my post-Chinese-class meditations.
It wasn’t like at summer camp. When the words hit me this time, I saw no colorful montage, but, like Abraham, a vision of darkness and horror: of the groundlessness and relativity of all beliefs, of the blind motions of force in matter as the only objective reality. A spasm of cold wrenched my chest and shot out into my limbs. I forgot about the students around me and started running.
I jogged through a crowded common area, down the pebbled sidewalk to my dorm, and vaulted the stairs up to my second-floor room. I threw my bag and sweater on the bed and locked myself in the study room next door—really just an empty dorm room crowded with extra chairs and a bed with no linens.
I lay on the bare mattress and tried to pray, doubt packed like a gag in my mouth. I twitched and shook, flopping like Binx Bolling on the floor of his mother’s crab shack in The Moviegoer.
When you try to live in a manner that preserves what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls a “porous self”—a self open to the intrusions of the word—you leave yourself vulnerable to this sort of wounding: when the word comes, and it’s no kindly piece of instruction, no signpost to a sure vocation, but a word of flame and salt that leaves you scorched and stung. But this word, the one that hurts, may be for all that more profoundly a word of grace. Marilynne Robinson writes of “grace as a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials.”
I find myself grasping at the words of others.
You cannot have the truth in such a way that you catch it, but only in such a way that it catches you.
The day after Christmas during my freshman year of college, I went to the doctor with chest pain. After a brief exam, he assured me that I was perfectly healthy, and that the discomfort I had been experiencing since the candlelight service on Christmas Eve was merely caused by anxiety. The first round of college finals is rough going for most students, and I’d had a particularly harrowing encounter with freshman chemistry. My body was belatedly processing the stress.
The following spring, my heart lay quiet. But all through the fall of sophomore year I lived with a clenched fist in my chest. It didn’t hurt. But a hand gripped me by the sternum and lifted me out of bed each morning and released me again only in sleep.
The anxiety was an emotional heat-sink, absorbing all the energies that made for my usual teenage highs and lows. I lived for months in an affective Flatland, a Kansas of quiet despair.
When I asked myself what I was anxious about, I couldn’t come up with an answer. To “fear one thing or another,” Walker Percy says, isn’t so bad, but to be “afraid of no-thing…is the worst of fears.” The spasm of metaphysical terror I felt that Friday afternoon on Spence Street was a kind of spike in the low-level anxiety that had plagued me throughout the preceding months.
Three years later, during another Christmas break, I blacked out while driving in heavy traffic on the north side of downtown Fort Worth. Later, on a quiet country road outside College Station, I choked on a great globe of Nothing in my throat. After that, each time I drove my car—and in College Station, you drive everywhere—I did so at peril of asphyxiation. I kept two bottles or cups at my side at all times and neurotically drank and spat and waited for my throat to squeeze shut.
I went to see another doctor. He diagnosed the episodes as panic attacks and recommended Xanax. I demurred in favor of talk therapy, and I have continued to demur.
In fifth grade, I competed in Number Sense competitions, ten-minute mental math exams. You weren’t allowed to write anything on paper but the answer; you won by ruthlessly executing arithmetic shortcuts. I was good. At the district academic meet in Wall, I was expected to win. I sat at a desk in the very center of the classroom, feeling confident. A teacher at the front of the room told us to begin, and I flipped the exam over on my desk.
The words became Greek, the numbers hieroglyphics. I broke out in a cold sweat, my twitching pencil poised in the air. A melting warmth grew in my groin. I shifted around in my seat, but that only made things worse. I wanted to get up and run to the bathroom, but I couldn’t. The sensation spread, fastening my body to the chair, and blossomed into sticky wetness. It was anything but pleasurable. My face burned. I was certain that everyone could see the splotch on my khakis, would know what a pervert I was.
After some moments, my brain reordered itself. The test became legible. By this point, there were no more than two minutes left. I worked out a few problems. The teacher called time.
I looked down at my pants. Nothing. I handed in my test, my shame compounded by my abysmal performance. I ran to the bathroom and checked my underwear. For some reason, I did this at a urinal rather than in a stall.
There was a small pearl of sticky semen in my drawers, but nothing that showed through to my pants. I retreated to a stall and wiped it out as best I could. I had watched sex-ed videos with the rest of my class in fourth grade, so I knew what had happened. It was the first time I had ever ejaculated.
This happened to me only one other time. In college, I got caught in a storm while swimming at Lake Whitney. I dug my fingers into the ridges of a limestone cliff and pulled my head above the pounding waves. That melting warmth came back. But I was wearing swim trunks and my waist was below water, and since I either had to swim my way to safety or drown, I didn’t worry about it too much. Still, to this day, my brain or body has trouble discriminating between anxiety and arousal.
I’ve been sick in the visitors’ locker room of every football stadium I’ve ever played in.
My senior year of high school, each time we reached the climax of The Crucible, our one-act play, numbness struck my face and arms. Playing Nathan Hale, I knelt penitent under hot lights at the foot of the gallows. My breath came short and my body prickled and seethed until long after the curtain fell.
On a mild fall evening during my junior year of college, I sat at an outdoor cafe table talking out our troubles with the woman I was dating at the time. A phantom fever chilled me.
“It just feels like you’re not really here for me,” she said.
I groped for words. My teeth chattered through the interminable silence.
Something in her snapped. “Why are you so cold?” Her voice rose. “It’s not even cold out here.”
“I don’t know,” I said, still trembling.
Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.
In his essay “Naming and Being,” Walker Percy distinguishes between the fear humans feel as animals, organisms adapted to their environments, and the anxiety we experience as speaking selves, beings capable of language:
The fear of an organism is appropriate; it is no more nor is it less than is warranted by the sign which arouses fear. […] But the anxiety which follows upon symbolization is ambiguous. The same anxiety may be destructive biologically—for it serves no biological function: one is afraid of nothing—and at the same time a summons to an authentic existence. It is for this reason that a physician and a metaphysician take opposite views of anxiety—Freud looking upon anxiety as a symptom of a disorder to be gotten rid of, Kierkegaard looking upon it as the discovery of the possibility of becoming a self.
I’ve always found it difficult to want to get rid of my anxiety. To want that feels like wanting to get rid of my self. Anxiety is a sign of selfhood because, as Percy points out later in the essay, the self escapes language and, therefore, escapes knowledge. Namers are themselves never captured by names, because namers are persons not things, “co-celebrants” of “Being” through the bestowal of names. Things, too, are always exceeding their names; names wear out and must be patched up or replaced. But namers are in a fundamental way unnamable. Just as you can never see the back of your own head, the self always slips its own grasp. And the gap between your self and your self-understanding is a chasm. Anxiety is the vertigo you feel when you look over the edge into the emptiness you are.
For Percy anxiety is a metaphysical clue as well as a medical symptom. Anyone who offers to cure me of my anxiety sounds like they’re asking me to throw my ace on the discard pile.
I’ve always thought that the letter Ø serves as a kind of emblem of Kierkegaard’s philosophy. An O and a /, it figures both the void and transcendence of the void, the null set and nullity’s negation, no-thing and a bridge across nothingness: an ideogram for the faith that overcomes the world only by flinging itself into very despair.
It looks like the thorn of anxiety jabbed slantwise into the heart.
Sometimes I resent my anxiety; sometimes I nurture it. Sometimes I find a way to live in and through and with and around it. I’ve come to understand this last state as irony.
In The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard divides despair into types. He slices it a few different ways, probably not all of which are compatible. But here’s one that sticks for me: in the first kind of despair, you wish to be anyone but yourself. You are ashamed to be yourself before God and beg to be a different person. You don’t want to be like this any more. Call this despair resenting my anxiety.
In the second kind of despair, you wish to be yourself. This is a more complex state than the first: you are in some way “not yourself.” Wheels within wheels, selves within selves, have opened up here. There is an authentic You that, before God, you wish to be. But how can you become You? Call this despair nurturing my anxiety.
The alternative to despair is faith: to be yourself transparently before God. Under that gracious but exacting gaze, you desire to be neither a better version of yourself nor a different person entirely. The only way to accept God, then, is to accept yourself, despite the fact that you can never fully know yourself. Call this faith irony, in the sense that irony, whether Socratic, dramatic, or otherwise, is founded on an inequality of knowledge. (We, the readers, know the murderess is feeding the policemen the murder weapon—a leg of lamb—but the policemen don’t know it.) To accept yourself is to accept the limits of self-knowledge, to live, that is, in knowledgeable ignorance before the omniscient God who grounds your being. You live with it—“it” being that part of your self that always escapes your ken (the place where anxiety dwells), along with your self-knowledge of that self-ignorance.
But for Kierkegaard, the only road to faith runs right through despair. You cannot really accept yourself until you’ve first despaired of yourself (and of your “true” Self). But to die in despair is to die faithless—that is, to forfeit your soul. The only way to be saved is to put your soul at hazard; to find yourself you must first lose yourself utterly. And faith is not a resting place. In dynamic and paradoxical tension, it overcomes despair without dispensing with it. Saving irony isn’t easily maintained and often slips into one or another form of despair again.
Some, associating the childlikeness praised by Jesus in the Gospels with simplicity and sincerity, might think that irony is faith’s opposite. But it seems to me that irony is just what results when an adult attempts to practice a childlike faith. Children have a remarkable capacity for complexity and ignorance and befuddlement and the endurance of pain. The child would never pull the thorn from the heart; the adult, mindful of the possibility of infection, would yank it out. Irony forestalls the habit of the adult in favor of the instinct of the child. It lets the thorn alone.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.