Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher and father of existentialism, put forth an interesting distinction between depression and despair. Kierkegaard struggled with depression from his childhood until his death at the age of 42, writing in one of his journals: “I am in the profoundest sense an unhappy individuality, riveted from the beginning to one or another suffering bordering on madness, a suffering which must have its deeper basis in a misrelation between my mind and body…”
Kierkegaard considered the depression he constantly struggled with a psychological disorder, an affliction resulting from the “misrelation” between his mind and body. However, Kierkegaard did not consider depression a curse in and of itself, and in fact he frequently referred to it as a blessing in his journals: “Yet it is an indescribable blessing to me that I was mentally depressed as I was.”
Kierkegaard thought that depression only becomes a curse when it is coupled with despair. He proclaimed that despair is not a psychological disorder, like depression, but a spiritual disorder. Although one may be afflicted with a depression that is extremely difficult to shake, Kierkegaard thought that an individual was free to maintain hope not only that his/her life will and can improve, but also that one’s bout with depression is an opportunity to learn valuable life-lessons and cultivate internal strength.
In other words, while one who is depressed is struggling with mental and emotional anguish, one who is in despair is one who has given up all hope and fails to see the valuable lessons inherent in their bouts with depression. In fact, despair is related to the French word “desepoir”, which means the negation of hope. According to Kierkegaard, as long as one maintains hope, one is spiritually healthy despite being afflicted with depression. Once one relinquishes hope, however, one descends into the worst of all possible conditions: despair and thus spiritual poverty.
As Gordon Marino explains in his book ‘Kierkegaard in the Present Age’: “It is not uncommon to hear depression described as “hell on earth”, and yet for Kierkegaard, it is as we have seen entirely possible that a person could live in such a hell and still be in robust spiritual condition.”
For Kierkegaard the important thing when struggling with depression is how one relates to one’s depression. An attitude of hope and strength in the face of a bout with depression signified for him spiritual health.