Reflections on What Really Matters The existential life choices and regrets of Søren Kierkegaard

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On May 15, 1813, a revolutionary thinker, writer, and intellectual heavy weight was born. Sadly, this budding young intellectual entered a family marked by a series of unfortunate events. His father Michael, bore a heavy burden of despair and melancholy, which had a lasting impression on the young Søren Kierkegaard. Michael was a deeply religious man, and he believed the family was doomed to a lifetime of misery due to what he considered a taboo mistake he made in his youth: he cursed God. 

While I know this might sound like a hyperbole, his dad wasn’t joking when he said that the family was cursed. Tragedy struck early, with Søren losing his mother at just 5 years old. By the time he reached his 20s’, 5 out of his 6 siblings had died. Death became horrifically habitual for this family. Although his father achieved great financial success after remarrying, no amount of material wealth mattered to him. Family was paramount, and he viewed his affluence as a cruel twist of fate. He felt as if God was blessing him with earthly goods, and mercilessly taking away the people he loved. A real catch 22.

Søren was a bit of an odd duck. While intellectually gifted, he was teased by his classmates for his appearance. He was described as a little old man—wearing clothing that could have came straight from your grandpa’s closet. That old man’s wisdom seeped into his studies. He had a sharp wit and excelled in school; so much so that his father told him to try dumbing it down a bit in an effort to fit in with his peers

Søren, like his father Michael, had a deep passion for religion and theology. His father wanted him to go to university to become a pastor, but Søren decided to study philosophy and literature instead, devoting himself to the life of an author. He contemplated the different ways (what he calls “spheres” or “stages”) of life, comparing them to each other: the ethical, the aesthetic, and the religious. The aesthetic, can be rudimentarily described as a hedonistic lifestyle of sorts or the pursuit of pleasure; one’s main goal is to derive enjoyment in life devoid of any deeper meaning or purpose. The ethical stage is one of duty and living in accordance with one’s values and morals. We adhere to rules of society, and have responsibilities to others which transcends one’s individual desires into a more self-less way of life. The last stage and what Kierkegaard deemed as the highest stage in life, was the religious. Kierkegaard was a devout Christian, but not the kind that just goes to Church every Sunday and recites passages from the bible, no. He called that “Christendom.” Christianity, to Kierkegaard, was one’s subjective relationship with God and it wasn’t an easy one. He writes, “Christianity is spirit; spirit is inwardness; inwardness is subjectivity, subjectivity is essentially passion, and at its maximum an infinite, personally interested passion for one’s eternal happiness.”† Living aesthetically in pursuit of pleasure or living life in duty to someone else wasn’t really for him. Instead, he felt compelled to live a life devoted to God.

In 1840, Kierkegaard met the much younger Regine Olsen, and after becoming friends, feelings between the two started to develop. During one of their meets, Kierkegaard asked Regine to play something on the piano. She acquiesced, but as soon as she started playing, Kierkegaard interrupted her abruptly. He enthusiastically said, “Oh, what do I care about music? It’s you I’m looking for, you I’ve been seeking for two years.”

Regine fell silent, but the feelings were mutual. Soon after, Kierkegaard proposed and they were engaged to be married.

Almost immediately after he proposed, Kierkegaard felt like he made a terrible mistake. He realized he couldn’t fulfill the role of a husband and at the same time, fulfill his life task to become a writer, philosopher, and devout Christian—his only intimate relationship had to be with God. “He sacrificed love…for the sake of writing.

In one of the most brutal ways to end a relationship, Kierkegaard sent Regine a letter with his engagement ring enclosed, breaking off the engagement. Essentially, this was the 19th century way to send a break-up text. The pain of this experience would plague Kierkegaard for the rest of his life. He went on to produce a mass body of work, but Regine was always at the back of his mind— a muse of sorts. In his book Repetition, one of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authors, Constantin Constantinius, discusses the same situation: a man falling in love, proposing, breaking it off. Constantinius writes, “She had permeated every aspect of his being. The thought of her was always fresh. She had been important to him. She had made him into a poet, and with this signed her own death-sentence.”

Kierkegaard experienced a deep, underlying sadness that always stayed with him. He tried to deflect the despair through his writing. “[I have] defended myself against my melancholy with intellectual work, which keeps it away….”But eventually, it would return.

Kierkegaard never recovered from breaking off the engagement. Towards the end of his life, he felt more and more regret for his decision to part ways with Regine. While he chose a specific life path, it was an isolated, lonely, tormented existence. Regine believes, based on a series of letters, that she was sacrificed in spite of Kierkegaard’s relationship with God.

What Matters

We get to choose the life we want to live and what really matters to uswhat to prioritize, what goals to set, or the type of person we want to be. While we can’t choose our blood family, we can choose the people we want to let into our lives to become our family.

Kierkegaard’s life was one of extremes. Whether it’s his methodical devotion to his work or his relationship with God, Kierkegaard’s choices are most likely unfathomable to a majority of us. However, with each of our choices in life comes an onset of pros and cons. Kierkegaard outlined this the conundrum of choices in a passages in Either/Or:

If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or do not marry, you will regret both; Laugh at the world’s follies, you will regret it, weep over them, you will also regret that; laugh at the world’s follies or weep over them, you will regret both; whether you laugh at the world’s follies or weep over them, you will regret both. Believe a woman, you will regret it, believe her not, you will also regret that; believe a woman or believe her not, you will regret both; whether you believe a woman or believe her not, you will regret both. Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will also regret that; hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the sum and substance of all philosophy.

With choices, come regrets. But we must choose regardless.

Relationships have always been the most important to me, but sometimes I let those slip; my goals take precedent and slowly over time, I lose sight of what really matters. I can get so caught up on outcomes and accomplishments, structure and routine, that I neglect to nurture my relationships with the people I care about the most. 

I’ve realized that I chose a life not unlike Kierkegaard, devoted to my passions. However, this full-time devotion leaves little room for really living. I don’t want to live a rigid, militant existence. I want to invite more spontaneity and flexibility in my life. After sacrificing my social life over the past year while training for a 120 mile race through the mountains, I forgot how nourishing my relationships really are, and am finally starting to carve out more time for them again.

That doesn’t mean I need to sacrifice the things I love to do, but I need to make the people and my partner a high priority in my life. You too shouldn’t give up what you love, but the people around you are also what you love. Don’t lose sight of that. Everything is a delicate dance, and we need to strike that right kind of balance.

Kierkegaard chose a life devoted to his passions, but deep down regretted not marrying Regine. His melancholy permeates his work. In this life, we all need to choose what’s best for us and brings us joy, but the people in our lives who bring us genuine joy need to be an evergreen priority. Sure, if we’re working towards a big goal, life can get super busy, and we can’t put as much time into our relationships. That’s okay. We don’t want to spread ourselves too thinly. But we should never let our relationships slip. Humans are built for community and connection.

For all the blog posts and books I write, races I run or financial success I have, none of that matters to me if I don’t have someone to share it with. As my mom said on the phone recently, “a blog post isn’t going to cuddle you at night.” 

Source Citations
Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, pg. 33

† Morten Høi Jensen, A Keeper of Love’s Flame: Regine Olsen and Søren Kierkegaard,

Thomas G. Casey Kierkegaard the Celibate,

† Morten Høi Jensen, A Keeper of Love’s Flame: Regine Olsen and Søren Kierkegaard,

† Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, pg. xxii

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