Freedom, Despair, and the Self

By Cole DeSantis

One of the more memorable moments from the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in 1969 was folk guitarist and singer Richie Havens’ set, which opened the festival. Anyone who, like myself, is interested in music and culture from that era will recall how Havens was asked to open the festival after several of the bands failed to make it on time due to delays. The last song he played was his now famous song “Freedom.”

This song incorporates the main verses of the traditional African-American spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” This song includes the lyrics,

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child/a long ways from my home./Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone./Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone./Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone,/a long ways from my home.

Many people may notice how this song, in many ways, exemplified the spirit of the generation to whom Havens sung this song nearly 50 years ago: a generation that, upon coming of age, sought to radically change the world; a generation that sought to break the “oppressive” shackles of the value system and social order passed onto them by their parents; a generation that sought to delve beyond the shallow, consumerist mentality of the middle of the century, post-war period; a generation which, in a word, sought to buck the system. It was the generation that either grew up in the shadow of, or gave birth to, such movements as the Civil Rights Movement, second-wave feminism, the Gay Liberation movement, the Peace Movement, and the Sexual Revolution. Increased freedom, the desire to expose corruption among the upper-most parts of society, and the willingness to challenge the norm whenever possible or necessary, were all the motives behind much of what that generation did, thus making “freedom” the buzzword of that generation.

Yet, with this desire for ever-expanding freedom and rapid and revolutionary social change came a certain social, political, cultural, and personal baggage. It was a generation that was defined by struggle – they were born in the aftermath of a major struggle (World War II and the Great Depression), grew up and came of age during a major struggle (the Civil Rights Movement), and often started struggles of their own (the social and political movements often associated with the Hippy movement).

When one looks at the choice of lyrics found in Havens’ song, there seems to be at least somewhat of an awareness of the negative effects of this. They were often at odds with, or even became outright estranged from, their parents. They were a generation that experienced the negative long-term effects of drugs and the Sexual Revolution. They were a generation completely unhinged – in the words of Don McLean, “a generation lost in space.” Their desire for greater freedom (a word which is literally repeated over and over again by Richie Havens) did, in more ways than one, bring them a long way from home.

The experience of the Baby Boomer generation, especially the older members of that generation who came of age in the 1960’s and 1970’s, can thus be seen as manifesting the basic realities of the human experience in general, albeit in a more explicit and exaggerated form. There is some awareness of it; yet, there is not a complete appreciation of the full implications of this. Thus, to say “I survived the 60’s” or “I grew up in the 1970’s” has almost become anything from a joke, to a badge of honor, to a signal from one Baby Boomer to another that signifies the meaning of, “I’m one of you.”

It was for this reason that Søren Kierkegaard notes, “Most frequently, no doubt, the condition of the despairing man, though characterized by multiform nuances, is that of a half obscurity about his own condition.” In the same work where Kierkegaard penned these words – Sickness Unto Death – he also provided one of the earliest extensive modern philosophical works on despair. What constitutes despair for Kierkegaard? He writes,

…it has much in common with the situation of the moribund when he lies and struggles with death, and cannot die. So to be sick unto death is, not to be able to die – yet not as though there were hope of life; no, the hopelessness in this case is that even the last hope, death, is not available. … [D]espair is precisely self-consuming, but it is an impotent self-consumption which is not able to do what it wills; and this impotence is a new form of self-consumption, in which, again, however, the despairer is not able to do what he wills, namely, to consume oneself (150-151).

More specifically, despair can be seen in the example of a person who is separated from their lover, and is overcome with extreme sadness. They have defined their entire existence in terms of their relationship with their partner; now that they are separated from their partner, they desire either to reestablish that which was lost, or to cease to exist. Another example is one who desires political power – their entire existence becomes defined in terms of their libido dominandi, and the failure to attain it leads to a desire to no longer exist. We cannot possibly imagine our existence apart from that which we desire, and thus do not desire to exist without it. Our existence, as such, in the absence of that which we desire, becomes unbearable. Yet, we do not cease to exist, in spite of our desire to not exist without it. Thus, our despair grows.

Despair is thus born out of a desire to either establish one’s existence on one’s own terms, or, if this is not possible, to cease to exist altogether. But, as Kierkegaard recognized the reality of the human soul, which is by its nature immortal, despair cannot cause the self to completely die. Thus, despair becomes a never-ending cycle. At its root, despair thus is born out of a grounding of one’s being in something other than that ultimate ground of one’s being, namely God. As Kierkegaard said,

That self which he despairingly wills to be is a self which he is not (for to will to be the self which one truly is is indeed the opposite of despair); what he really wills is to tear himself from the Power that constituted it. But, notwithstanding all his despair, this he is unable to do; notwithstanding all the efforts of despair, that Power is the stronger, and it compels him to be the self he does not want to be (153).

 The despairing man is “detaching the self from every relation to the Power that posited it, or detaching it from the very conception that there is such a Power in existence.” It is for this reason that Kierkegaard peppers his treatment on despair with talk of “salvation” and “the humility of faith”. The only way to overcome despair is by realizing that we, humans, are not the ultimate source of the parameters of our existence; we are not the ground of our own existence; we do not define the ultimate meaning in our existence; rather, it is He who is the source of our existence, namely God, who defines the meaning of our existence. Faith is trust in and submission to that by which human life draws its source; despair is what results from the attempt to define human existence on our own terms, or else cease to exist if this is not possible.

One sees warnings against this throughout the Christian tradition. Pope St. John Paul II warns against this in the moral and ethical realm: for example, he began his treatment of freedom in his 1994 encyclical Veritatis Splendor with a brief exegesis on Genesis 2:16-17. The fact that man could not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil signifies that man cannot define morality, but only God. Man’s freedom is “far-reaching,” since man has it within his power to, by the use of reason, discern or differentiate good from evil, and to chose whether or not to accept or reject it; nonetheless, as he says in paragraph 35 of the text, “the power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to man, but to God alone.”

So, one can call for freedom all they want, but what really matters is what is the nature of the freedom which they call for. What sort of freedom is Richie Havens singing of? True freedom comes from ordering oneself towards God. It is God who created us with free will. God, as the author of free will, is thus infinitely and eternally free. Human freedom is thus expressed in its fullest sense in union with God. Obedience to the Divine Will is thus what leads to true human freedom. The desire to do whatever one wants, no matter what, even if it contradicts the will of God, is thus not true freedom.

Thus false freedom is the cutting off of one’s being from its ultimate source and end, and grounding it in anything other than God. This leads to the restlessness of the heart spoken of by St. Augustine, the scrupulosity experienced by Luther early on in his career, or the despair spoken of by Kierkegaard. This was the restlessness that defined the generation present at Woodstock. It seems that there is at least somewhat of an awareness of this in the song “Freedom.” The same song which sings of freedom also sings of being “almost gone,” speaks of feeling like a “motherless child, a long ways from my home.” From a Christian perspective, one’s home could be their heavenly home, or the pre-Fall state of man represented by the Garden of Eden; the “motherless child” could be one estranged from God by sin; the act of being “almost gone” may represent the existential crisis brought about by sin – which is not only moral or spiritual, but also touches at the very root of our existence from a metaphysical perspective. One sees this, for example, in much of the Eastern Christian literature (see especially in St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation of the Word made Flesh) and in St. Augustine’s treatment of the Fall in The City of God: sin is a turning away from He who is the source and summit of all being and existence; sin thus represents a turning towards nothingness, the corruption of being itself. So, if one is going to stake out on their own, be prepared for the existential isolation and restlessness that follows, unless one is going to order their newfound freedom to something higher.

So, what sort of freedom is Havens calling for when he sings repeatedly the word “freedom”? Is it the sort of freedom that led to sin? Is it the freedom whereby one attempts to live in accordance with a false sense of autonomy – that is, the notion that one’s existence is rooted in the self, instead of something beyond the self? Such a freedom is in fact the abuse of freedom, and man in such a state is not truly free. John M. Rist wrote in an article featured in an October 1969 publication of The Journal of Theological Studies, that St. Augustine made a distinction between the concept of choice and the will. Choice is a particular line of action that the agent acting goes down. Man has free choice insofar as: 1)There were multiple possible lines of action, and thus it was logically possible for man to act differently; 2)That which moved man to act is something within himself. Yet, even though man has free choice, he does not have free will. Man’s will is not merely his ability to chose, but rather is man’s moral agency, which in a sense encompasses the entirety of who man is. Man’s will is not free insofar as man is in a state of sin. Firstly, there are the effects of original sin. Further, there are the effects of personal sin: the more one sins, the more one becomes inclined to more sin, and thus the more one actually does sin, thus perpetuating the cycle. Man in his fallen state can sin whenever he wants, but cannot do the fullness of the goodness for which he was created due to sin.

One sees in the Baby Boomer generation an attempt to struggle with the existential implications of this. The Baby Boomers may have been right on some issues; yet, the Baby Boomer generation still had this attitude of, “Screw the collective moral wisdom of previous generations; let’s define things on our own terms.” This thus led to the throwing out of the baby with the bathwater – any moral progress that had been made in previous generations was thus ignored. We see the long-term effects of this in society today; but, we also see this in the collective psyche of the Baby Boomer Generation – a generation that, due to its ideology and attitude, lacked any sense of rootedness, any sense of tradition, any sense of continuity.

True freedom, the freedom which man longs for from the depths of his soul, can only be found in and by God. True freedom comes from turning towards God, and in so doing perceiving and accepting the true identity of one’s self, as opposed to the false sense of self that comes from looking at oneself in metaphysical or existential isolation from God and the attempt to ground ones being in something other than God. This includes the freeing of the soul from sin and the granting to it the ability to be all that God has created it to be, by God’s grace.


  1. Søren Kierkegaard provides a good analysis of the nature of despair in Sickness Unto Death. A further exploration into this and other works by him could speak volumes about despair. See Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling/The Sickness Unto Death, trans. Walter Lowrie. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1968.
  2. Hans Urs von Balthasar’s work The Christian and Anxiety, particularly the first section (entitled “God’s Word and Anxiety”) makes a distinction between two types of anxiety: the first being found among anyone, being caused by an apprehension resulting from an understanding of the finitude of being, the reality of death and non-existence, and the infinitude of God. The second type of anxiety is found only among the sinners and is caused directly by their sin. This latter form of anxiety is very similar to Kierkegaard’s understanding of despair; yet, he adds another dynamic, a dynamic which is almost built into existence. This bears some similarity to the distinction between evil and tragedy painted by Dr. Jordon Peterson (see In his mindset, tragedy is suffering that is beyond our control, caused by finite man attempting to exist within an infinitely complex world; evil, on the other hand, is suffering that is willingly caused. This parallels von Balthasar’s distinction between the anxiety caused by an understanding of the finitude of our existence – which is a simple fact of life – and the anxiety caused by the sin of the sinner. The difference between Peterson and von Balthasar is the latter’s explicit belief that Jesus took our anxiety upon Himself by taking our sin upon Himself in His death and resurrection and thereby giving us something that serves as the grounds of salvation and hope, something which, again, parallels Kierkegaard (his belief that faith in Christ is the means by which to come to terms with or overcome the absurdity of existence and despair).
  3. As I said in the article, St. Augustine’s belief that man will continually move from one passing good to another – the restlessness of the heart spoken of in Book I, Chapter I of the Confessions – is caused by us not turning to God as the object of beatitude. This bears some similarity to Kierkegaard’s view of despair. Yet, I believe that Augustine’s view is more explicit in creating more of a contrast between man in a state of sin (and the despair that goes with it) and man in a state of grace. He writes, in Book II, chapter 20 of On Free Choice, that sin “lies in the will, [and thus] it is under our control. If you fear it, you must simply not desire it; if you do not desire it, it will not occur.” We have free choice; thus, we can avoid sin if only we lack the desire to sin. Yet, we will always lack the desire to totally overcome sin entirely. In chapter 7 of On Grace and Free Will, he says that we need “the grace of God, without which we are not able to do any good.” We have it within our power to act a certain way, insofar as Augustine rejects a deterministic worldview. Yet, we cannot act as we ought unless we have grace. So, overcoming despair is not a simple matter of “getting over yourself”; without grace, we will always make the choice – granted by our own free power – to do things that cause us to fall into or remain in a state of despair. So, Augustine emphasized the reality of our utter dependence on God, and thus the contrast between being in a state of sin (and thus despair) and a state of grace.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s