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Kierkegaard On “Loving the Person You See”

In Friendship on December 1, 2013 at 1:48 pm

Soren Kierkegaard

It would seem that the most obvious thing in the world is to do what Kierkegaard suggests, “to love the person you see.”  But how is it that we should have to remind ourselves about such an obvious thing to do at all?  Well, take smartphones for example, so often we are near completely distracted from many opportunities for charity and loving the people we do see around us because we are chatting with people we can’t see, or worse, we’re distracted by texting or using an app or game instead of engaging the people really present around us.  So, we probably should reconsider this “most obvious” precept of Kierkegaard from his Works of Love (edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton UP: Princeton, NY. 1995).

Kierkegaard, who is often considered the first Existentialist philosopher and important for personalist philosophy as well, stresses the importance of being present to one another in order to love and care for each other, in order to be available for another person.  He says, “The Christian point of view…is that to love is to love precisely the person one sees.  The emphasis is not on loving the perfections one sees in a person, but the emphasis is on loving the person one sees, whether one sees perfections or imperfections in this person, yes, however distressingly this person has changed, inasmuch as he has not ceased to be the same person.”(p.173)  These are difficult words but true.  Kierkegaard makes an appropriate distinction between “loving the person” and “loving a quality of a person.”  It is more important and more difficult to love the whole person unconditionally, than to love a person based upon a condition or quality.  Take beauty, one may fall in love with someone because of a person’s beauty, which is a quality of the person though passing, while one may marry another person not because of the beauty but because of who the person is, the whole person, unconditionally, with perfections and imperfections.  He continues, “So deeply is love rooted in human nature, so essentially does it belong to a human being, and yet people very often hit upon escapes in order to deprive themselves of this blessing…People bemoan humanity and its unhappiness, bemoan finding no one whom they can love, because to bemoan the world and its unhappiness is always easier than to beat one’s breast and bemoan oneself. “(p.157)  Take a child for example, a child usually finds it quite easy to love others and make new friends right away.   Does a mature person lose this capacity as he or she gets older?  No, of course not, yet why does it seem to become more difficult to make friends and love others as we grow older?  Well, it seems, from what Kierkegaard is saying here, that as a child, we were largely unaware of other persons faults and imperfections and even our own, but as we grow older, we not only become increasingly aware of others imperfections but our own limitations as well, and we lose that openness to “loving the persons we see” because we fail to see beyond their imperfections and then we lose sight of the person himself.  And maybe we want to avoid others from knowing our own imperfections too, so we avoid them altogether, “not seeing them.”

Kierkegaard persists in this examination.  He says, “Sometimes the self-deception is the proud self-satisfaction that considers it futile to seek what could be worthy of himself–since it is always easier to demonstrate one’s superiority by being fastidious about everyone else than to demonstrate it by being rigorous with oneself.” (p.157)  It is much easier and more comfortable to avoid “seeing others” if it causes us unwanted or inconvenient introspection of our defects, which we are unwilling or even unable to correct on our own.  But Kierkegaard doesn’t let us off easy if we are going to be the person who decides to love whom he sees, saying “…on must first and foremost give up all imaginary and exaggerated ideas about a dreamworld where the object of love should be sought and found–that is, one must become sober, gain actuality and truth by finding and remaining in the world of actuality as the task assigned to one.”(p.161)  As a famous theologian once said, “When we put love where there is no love, we will find love.”  Well, Kierkegaard, with his existentialist mind, points out that our actual reality is the reality to which we have a duty and an opportunity to bring love at every moment and under all circumstances.  He explains, “…if a person is to fulfill the duty in loving, to love the people he sees, then he must not only find among actual people those he loves, but he must root out all equivocation and fastidiousness in loving them so that in earnestness and truth he loves them as they are and in earnestness and truth takes hold of the task: to find the once given or chosen object lovable.”(p.166)  In other words, we need to be humble when loving others in order to be truly open and objective, so that we in fact discover what is truly lovable about the other persons we see, instead of preferencing their lovability on our own self-interests or motivations.

What does Kierkegaard recommend for people to truly love the person they see?  He says, “The matter is quite simple.  A person should begin with loving the unseen, God, because then he himself will learn what it is to love.” (p.160)  How does this connect to others?  He states, “If you want to show that your life is intended to serve God, then let it serve people, yet continually with the thought of God. “(p.161)  Here we see that Kierkegaard is a personalist, whereby the meaning of life and love derive from love and service to God and one another, loving unconditionally through helping people, beginning with the very people we see before us.  He says, “When it is a duty, in loving, to love the people we see, there is no limit to love; if the duty is to be fulfilled, love must be limitless, it is unchanged, no matter how the object becomes changed.”(p.167) He continues, “Christ’s love was boundless, as it must be if it is to be fulfilled: in loving, to love the person one sees…alas, but we human beings speak about finding the perfect person in order to love him, whereas Christianity speaks about being the perfect person who boundlessly loves the person he sees.”(p.174)  In our modern world, with all of our handheld gadgets, it seems like it might be becoming more difficult “to love the person one sees” because we are so distracted from our loved ones and the persons around us, maybe we can remember what Kierkegaard suggests: that the beginning point of all love, is to love the person we see, here and now.  He concludes saying, “Therefore, if you want to be perfect in love, strive to fulfill this duty, in loving, to love the person one sees, to love him just as you see him, with all his imperfections and weaknesses, to love him as you see him when he has changed completely, when he no longer loves you but perhaps turns away indifferent or turns away to love another, to love him as you see him when he betrays and denies you.”(p.174)  If we live what Kierkegaard suggests, surely we will find love and happiness in this life and the next.