“. . . for the individual has become the eternal echo of this voice. . .” (Søren Kierkegaard)

(Note: I am “out of my depth” here. I am neither theologian nor philosopher. I only read and find connections to my own experience.)


Individual. Crowd. GED students, Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. “In vain the individual looks for the crowd.”

A few weeks ago a university student interviewed me for an assignment he needed to complete – to interview an individual working for the university and write an essay about that person. Even though, as a tutor in the athletic department, I am not technically an employee of the university, we did the interview and he wrote the essay (and earned a very good grade, I might add).

One of the questions his professor suggested the students ask was, “Do you have any regrets in your life?”

I was perplexed how to answer. I certainly have regrets, but most of them I did not want to discuss with a student. I have written here both directly and obliquely about my regrets, and about the concept concerning regrets that has been a cornerstone of my thinking for about 30 years, “We will not regret the past nor wish to close the door on it.”

The day of the interview, I began thinking about “regrets” as an abstract category.

Of course, thinking about the category has required thinking about specific regrets. I have regrets from the past. I don’t know if I have wished to close the door on them. Closing the door implies forgetting about them, perhaps even pretending I did not act in a way that I regretted.

The truth of that concept concerning regrets is that whatever I did in the past I cannot change, so I must remember my missteps without letting regret for them control my thinking about myself in the present, a common understanding.

Thinking about the student’s question took my memory to a determinative time in my life.  I did not tell the student any of this, but I have pondered it a great deal since the day he asked.

In 1968, when I was less than a year out of college, I was a gay man married to a woman who knew I was gay before we married. I was a student in seminary instead of in graduate school in my field, partly to avoid the Viet Nam draft and partly to avoid exposing myself as incompetent in my field (music, specifically organ performance). At the time, I regretted nearly every aspect of my life although I could not have articulated that. As might be expected, I sabotaged myself. I acted out in a way that resulted in my dismissal from the seminary (for which I am grateful), I began the slow process of the dissolution of my marriage (which was essential for both of us), and I entered graduate school in music – but in composition, not performance for which I feared myself unqualified.

I regretted my decision to enter seminary, but I did not regret the study itself. At the time I left the seminary, I was in a class in Existential Theology. I remember with some amusement the professor talking about Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834) who influenced Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). The professor spoke the name with a Texas accent. I had heard of Kierkegaard in the way all slightly educated students of theology and/or philosophy have heard, but I had no knowledge of Schleiermacher (and still don’t).

I have worked off and on since that disastrous semester to understand Kierkegaard’s Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing because it captivated me and seemed to be key to some understanding of my life, especially Kierkegaard’s writing about the “individual.”

I’ve had tucked in the back of my mind for many years the notion that I would at some time need to come to terms with whether or not I am truly an individual and what that might mean for me. I have assumed that Kierkegaard was asking his questions directly of me.

Do you now live so that you are conscious of yourself as an individual; that in each of your relations in which you come into touch with the outside world, you are conscious of yourself, and that at the same time you are related to yourself as an individual? Even in these relations which we men so beautifully style the most intimate of all, do you remember that you have a still more intimate relation, namely, that in which you as an individual are related to yourself before God? (Purity of Heart, Chapter 13).

Do I live so that I am conscious of myself and relate to myself as an individual? And what can it possibly mean to be related to myself before God – a God in whom I do not believe? And if I do not believe, why cannot I not let the question go?

I can easily see that I was not living “conscious of [my]self as an individual” when I thought I needed to be married in order to be acceptable – acceptable to whom? Or when, because I thought others would find my musical abilities to be inadequate, I forsook what I really wanted to do and be. I can review over the course of my life a consistent pattern of living in ways in which I have not been conscious of myself as an individual, both in what I have done for myself and what I have done in relation to other people.

As I was in the process of undoing the deceptive life-structures I had built for myself in 1968, I discovered I needed to wrestle with Kierkegaard’s further question even though by that time I believed theological concepts such as “eternal life” only metaphorically.

. . . what is eternity’s accounting other than that the voice of conscience is forever installed with its eternal right to be the exclusive voice? What is it other than that throughout eternity an infinite stillness reigns wherein the conscience may talk with the individual about what he, as an individual, of what he has done of Good or of evil, and about the fact that during his life he did not wish to be an individual? (Purity of Heart, Chapter 13).

Consciousness of oneself as an individual allows one’s conscience to ask what the individual has “done of Good or of evil.” The Danish words do not seem to be related as the English words are: conscious – bevidst; conscience – samvittighed. I’m not a linguist, so I don’t know their roots.

It seems to me, having had one half of a semester studying Kierkegaard (and, therefore, being an authority?) he is saying that consciousness of oneself as an individual results in hearing the voice of conscience. If one does “not wish to be an individual,” but to be part of the crowd, one cannot understand what one might have “done of Good or evil.”

Being an individual is not at all about having no regrets.

Then it follows so easily that the isolated voice of conscience (as generally happens to a solitary one) becomes overruled — by the majority. But in eternity, conscience is the only voice that is heard. It must be heard by the individual, for the individual has become the eternal echo of this voice. It must be heard. There is no place to flee from it. For in the infinite there is no place, the individual is himself the place. It must be heard. In vain the individual looks about for the crowd. (Purity of Heart, Chapter 13)