Kierkegaard on finding one’s purpose and truth in life

When it comes to career or vocation, young people in North America are often encouraged to “do what you love,” an exhortation that originates in the doctrine of expressive individualism and obeys the “gospel of self-fulfillment.” In response to this error, some espouse an alternative exhortation: “to find happiness, forget passion.” My concern is that this word is also vulnerable to error. As a young man, Soren Kierkegaard tried to avoid the false dilemma that separates passion from duty; he kept them together in a fruitful tension. In the journal entry below, he aspires for “an imperative of knowledge” (objective calling) that “must come alive in [him]” (subjective response and realization). Will our purpose (or vocation) be free of difficulty and frustration? No, of course not. If we remember that the word passion has etymological roots in the sufferings of Christ on the Cross, we can expect that our vocations will be marked by seasons of pleasure and pain, heartiness and hardship. I can endure whatever my vocation dishes up precisely because it is my vocation, “bound up with the deepest roots of my existence.”

What I really need is to get clear about what I am to do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must proceed every act. What matters is to find my purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I should do; the crucial thing is to find a truth that is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. Of what use would it be to me to discover a so-called objective truth, to work through the philosophical systems so that I could, if asked, make critical judgments about them, could point out the fallacies in each system; of what use would it be to me to develop a theory of the state, getting details from various sources and combining them into a whole, and constructing a world I did not live in but merely held up for others to see; of what use would it be to me to be able to formulate the meaning of Christianity, to be able to explain many specific points – if it had no deeper meaning for me and for my life? And the better I was at it, the more I saw others appropriate the creations of my mind, the more tragic my situation would be, not unlike that of parents who in their poverty are forced to send their children out into the world and turn them over to the care of others. Of what use would it be to me for truth to stand before me, cold and naked, not caring whether or not I acknowledged it, making me uneasy rather than trustingly receptive. I certainly do not deny that I still accept an imperative of knowledge and that through it men may be influenced, but then it must come alive in me, and this is what I now recognize as the most important of all. This is what my soul thirsts for as the African deserts thirst for water. This is what is lacking, and this is why I am like a man who has collected furniture, rented an apartment, but as yet has not found the beloved to share life’s ups and downs with him. But in order to find that idea – or, to put it more correctly – to find myself, it does no good to plunge still further into the world. This was just what I did before. The reason I thought it would be good to throw myself into law was that I believed I could develop my keenness of mind in the many muddles and messes of life. Here, too, was offered a whole mass of details in which I could lose myself; here, perhaps, with the given facts, I could construct a totality, an organic view of criminal life, pursue it in all its dark aspects (here, too, a certain fraternity of spirit is very evident). I also wanted to become an acteur [actor] so that by putting myself in another’s role I could, so to speak, find a substitute for my own life and by means of this external change find some diversion. This was what I needed to lead a completely human life and not merely one of knowledge, so that I could base the development of my thought not on – yes, not on something called objective – something that in any case is not my own, but upon something that is bound up with the deepest roots of my existence, through which I am, so to speak, grafted into the divine, to which I cling fast even though the whole world may collapse. This is what I need, and this is what I strive for. (August 1, 1835)

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3 thoughts on “Kierkegaard on finding one’s purpose and truth in life

  1. Oh my. I love this. Two great loves, vocational discernment & Kierkegaard, in one post!
    In other news, I have recently moved to Denver! Do you still live here?!

  2. All I really have to say in response to this is the word “yes.” Also, you were the one who encouraged me to read “Why Work” by Dorothy L. Sayers, correct? That essay is FANTASTIC!

    • Yes, I gave you Dorothy Sayers’ essay “Why Work.” She helped me to make a vital distinction between a career (which aims for glory of the self) and a calling (which aims for glory of God and service to neighbor).

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