Freedom is the element of love

Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and the so-called “father of existentialism” was born today, May 5 in 1813. To celebrate, I drink a bottle of champagne and share this essay which, recently, was published in the Wild Roof Journal.

A man in his late fifties enters a tattoo shop in Barcelona. He shows up unannounced with his new girlfriend. They are both a little bit drunk.

“Can you write her name on my arm?” he asks the young female tattoo artist who was busy tattooing me. 

Before waiting for an answer, he rolls up the sleeves of his grayish sweatshirt. “Here,” he says, pointing to a vacant spot of bare skin close to his wrist. I notice that his arm already carries four other female names. Three of them are crossed out. 

“I need you to cross out the last one and add her name,” he says, as he points to his partner. Her. 

The tattooist looks at the man’s arm, looks at the lady, and says, “Lucky you!” 

Is she being ironic? 

She observes, “Before he didn’t have room for you; now he does.”

Love and Freedom Are Bound Together 

This episode makes me think of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who once wrote in a letter to his fiancée, Regine Olsen, “Freedom is the element of love.” This statement encapsulates the two most important features of a life worth living: freedom and love. 

You’re free to do almost whatever you want as long as you’re willing to take all the consequences. It goes without saying that you’re never free to violate or harm anyone, deliberately, which also has nothing to do with love. Love is edifying, as Kierkegaard writes wrote in Works of Love (1847). 

For Kierkegaard, love is the metaphysical foundation of life; it is what is. Yet, combined with freedom, love can take many forms: friendships, parents, lovers, etc. 

Regardless of one’s gender or sexual orientation, what is important when it comes to love is there; it exists. We are all free to experience the possibilities of love, but doing so in our own way. Looking at Kierkegaard through the recollection of this episode, I believe it illustrates—or at least encourages me to reflect on—something more general about society than whether a few people like ink or not. 

For example, many people in today’s achievement-oriented society who suffer from insecurity, anxiety, stress, or burnout do so because they feel alone. They basically lack the experience of real and honest contact with other people. Often even with themselves, as when Wittgenstein defines a philosophical problem with being lost. 

Isn’t showing a new acquaintance, a potential lover, that your arm already carries the names of four other women a way of showing honesty? A way of trying to facilitate real contact? Create a space where love can flourish, despite it all?

If I am right, then there was nothing sad about it for him or her. Quite the contrary, being unconnected with other lives leads to sadness. Unfortunately, many people live behind what resembles a firewall that falsely protects our vulnerability or fear of losing face while, at the same time, prevents us from connecting with other people. It’s like a veil between the world, you, and me. 

Are we being too  polite to be honest?

Many, would probably feel embarrassed if they had to cross out a name on their arm, especially if they hadn’t learned from their first, second, and third mistakes, but just kept on adding name after name. Still, they would only be embarrassed because they would look at themselves through the ideals or norms of others, especially those people with whom they might hope to be identified. This, I believe, illustrates how the existential and political tend to become indistinguishable. For instance, in today’s identity-political sphere, many tend to criticize or oppose other people, thoughts, or forms of life, not because of critical thinking but due to prejudices. Knowing how easy it is to fall outside in a society where people tend to shoot before they ask, or even think (if they think at all), firewalls eventually emerge. 

Freedom, therefore, also becomes a question of power. As Byung-Chul Han has shown in What Is Philosophy? (2019), “Violence and freedom are the two end points on the scale of power.” Although there is a tendency among philosophers to leave power to political scientists and organizational theorists, power addresses existential questions. 

For instance, whether those subjected to power follow their own desire while doing so, or whether they follow the desire of the powerful as if it were their own, or whether they even anticipate the desire of the other. Thus, regardless of how trite this may sound, I believe that many people lack the courage and creativity to live the life they want (again, I am thinking of any kind of life that doesn’t deliberately harm anyone). If we are afraid of losing our good standing among people who don’t actually tolerate any diversion from their own ideals, we are not free, and therefore—following Kierkegaard—not capable of loving. The kind of firewall that I refer to is mainly constituted by powerful norms and ideals of our current achievement-focused society that constantly forces us to live in a particular way. 

For example, many young people today feel a pressure to attain an unrealistic body image, often only achieved through plastic surgery or synthetic enhancement. Or how we may feel forced to develop certain competences or express warranted opinions (typically only those that already fit into or enhance our “human capital”). The result of this capitalization of life is that we drain ourselves emotionally, mentally, and physically. We not only fail to live up to all the ideals but also to forgive ourselves for not being able to do so. We have lost our direction in life playing the power-game of others.

To Become Free 

Returning to the opening episode, we must understand that instead of one true love, some people might experience several. Similarly, instead of claiming that there only exists one right way of living a life worth living, there are several. If Western philosophy teaches us anything, it is that we are always placed in the middle, trying to do our best, exploring and testing life. That is testing our freedom and desires, like asking whether our desire to do this or that really is our desire, or whether we’re just being seduced, forced, or manipulated.

According to Kierkegaard in his letter, love and freedom cannot be separated. Feeling loved and being capable of love make a person free. A simple example could be how most people feel free when they are together with their loved ones. Together with friends, we can turn off our protective firewall. 

The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau opens The Social Contract (1762) with the claim: “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” Despite the power of this sentence I don’t believe we are born free; on the contrary, as a father of three, I have noticed that we are all born helpless and impotent. Still, to some extent, I agree with Rousseau. Instead of cultivating a capacity for critical thinking and compassion in our children, most future citizens are institutionalized in a way that chains them mentally. For the same reason, I agree with Rousseau when he goes on to say: “Those who think themselves masters of others are instead greater slaves than they.” They, the masters, maintain a self-constraining system, yet they do so because they seduce themselves into believing that the systematic status and prestige they have reflects how good they are at living a life worth living. But it doesn’t. 

To become free in an existential sense requires more than stripes on the shoulder, a high salary, or being born in a privileged part of the world. It requires first of all an acknowledgement and respect towards the world we are born into, its norms and ideals, but also an empathic yet critical capacity to question these norms and ideals, the structure behind them, perhaps even to change them. In my book A Philosophy of Mindfulness (2018), I defined freedom as a combination of having the courage to stand against all that which limits, controls, or even destroys our lives, combined with the imagination to create space for alternative lives. It’s a mixture of resistance and inventiveness. Or, to put it even more simply, a mixture of saying both “no” and “yes.” The reason why I don’t believe that we are born free is related to the fact that in order to know what is important, we will have to have tested, explored, or experimented with life. With age, most people know when to say “no”; however, they only know so because they become conscious of what to affirm or say “yes” to. 

Love All People as Equals 

Reflecting on the couple entering the tattoo parlor, I propose that we might see them as a couple that, despite their setbacks, imagines a world where love is still possible. They still know what is important, what to affirm: love.

Another way of confirming that freedom and love are the main ingredients of a life worth living could be by postulating that egocentrism is the exact opposite of freedom. I say so because I only believe we can become free together. Saying this, I am aware that some may suggest that the man entering the tattoo parlor is being egocentric in the act of getting a tattoo of each woman’s name. However, such an assumption would require that we see the tattoo as a symbol of more than it is, for example, a kind of ownership or possession which is a part of our habitual capitalist mindset. On the other hand, the tattoo might be nothing more than a faithful confirmation of the strength of love. Of course, the tattoo—-especially in this situation with so many names—-can make us think of the person as naive, romantic, or too spontaneous, and yet, it is also an affirmation that emphasizes what connects those names on his arm: love. 

Love is everywhere the same, although it always expresses itself differently. 

Kierkegaard illustrated this strength in Works of Love (1847)where he elaborated on the biblical sentence “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” stressing that “thy neighbor” does not refer to your people, nation, gender or sexual orientation, but all people. We should love all people as equals.

Now this is something that very few of us are capable of, but even more sadly, loving everyone as equals (not equally) is something that many of us don’t even strive to accomplish. Capitalism has made us lazy in a comfortable way, either by avoiding any kind critical scrutinization of our own pre-existing biases, or by assuming that all problems can be overcome through consumption. On the contrary, love teaches us to become worthy of what happens. It’s hard work but nothing is more enriching and liberating. 

Kierkegaard, in my opinion, doesn’t present us with an abstract ideal of love; rather, he confronts our confusion and limitations, which can be extremely powerful in a time where many are so self-conscious of their own way of thinking (often anchored solely in their race, gender or sexuality) that they become resistant to alternative perspectives. 

Perhaps this more humble approach to life could lead to a more caring educational mission: How can we teach people today what makes them capable of loving all people tomorrow? 

Love is all inclusive

This reflection of love, freedom, and tattoos has become more political than intended. However, and perhaps I am being too romantic or naive as well, I do believe that love belongs in a political context as well. The power of love transforms not only our lives but also societies by overturning the cultures of domination and repression because they have nothing to do with love. For example, when we are dominated or dominate someone, we are never free. Violence and coercion are lifeless. In other words, those who misuse power (not those in power per se) do so because they are not free. A parent hitting his or her child might claim that he or she did so “out of love”, although it is just an act of violence. 

Love is all inclusive. Or as Kierkegaard said, we should love everyone as equals, not favoring our own gender or religion. Our human history is full of violence, discrimination and killing of women for being women, killing and discriminations of different races, religions or thoughts solely for being different. Human history is one where far too many only like the stranger as long as he or she thinks exactly like them. Thus, there are many reasons to be angry, and anger often comes with a clearer vision, just as there is a lot of needed fuel in it, and yet in order to build or construct a better future, only love can do the work. Love cares for everyone and everything. It was there before we were born, and it will be here once we are gone. Love is what links each name together, not just the one on the man’s arm, but all names in human history. 

Love is not hierarchical, nor does it moralize. The tattooist illustrated this. She didn’t moralize as if she represented a higher and more lucrative position of unquestionable “good”. Instead she was open, not just because they were potential paying customers, but due to her capacity to empathize with them. 

The couple in the tattoo parlor shared a belief in love. Not in the sense that life is without difficulties and suffering. It is; but rather that it’s love that helps us overcome these setbacks, never revenge or hate. 

Love, therefore, is not an abstract ideal but something we all experience and notice if we pay attention. It is like pointing out what all football fans share regardless of their favorite team, which is a love of the game; what all languages share, which is the ability to communicate, make connections, and dialogue; what all people share regardless of national origin, which is that they live on this planet; or what all of us share regardless of gender, race, and sexual preference, which is that we need sunlight to live and that we all breathe the same air. 

If we can love all people as equals, then we would also be capable of seeing why all people should be treated with the same respect, trust, care, and justice. There is no love without mutual respect and equality. However, and this is why I have been using this little episode about the man and women as my point of departure; if I cannot encounter two drunk people in a tattoo parlor without feeling better than them, pitying them or any other kind of sad behavior that would illustrate my embedded prejudices, how should I then make myself available for those who live lives far more different.

Is love bulletproof then? Without answering directly, I would claim that the mistakes we make in love can be crossed out. We can go on living because they initially emerged from a free, honest, and nondiscriminating relationship to and with life. It’s an honest mistake. The man in the tattoo parlor doesn’t hide his previous relationships. On the contrary, he brings (or she brings him) to make another affirmation of love. It is like an ethical confirmation; despite all the discrimination, greed, and violence in today’s world, we must “go on” affirming what matters. Daily.

You know when you’re in love. Or to put it differently: if you’re doubting, you’re not in love.

The last thing I heard the tattooist ask the man as I left the store was, “Are you sure?”

“Do I look like I am doubting?”

 It was her saying those last words. 

Quiero saber qué es el amor

“Quiero saber qué es el amor”, cantó la banda de rock británico-estadounidense Foreigner en los años ochenta. Estaban lejos de ser originales. Por el contrario, el amor ha sido elevado, cuestionado, estereotipado, usado y mal utilizado desde el comienzo de la existencia humana. En la cultura popular, el concepto de amor se ha trivializado hasta el punto de que podríamos sorprendernos cuando, a veces, nos enamoramos de todos los clichés y el sentimentalismo. Aunque la banda de rock puede no ser original, todavía plantea una pregunta universal.

Lee el resto de mi texto “Kierkegaard y el concepto del amor como fuerza política” que presenté en al Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Quito, Ecuador.

Kierkegaard: Love, literature & life

“Loving people is the only thing worth living for.” – Søren Kierkegaard

I will be participating in the “Ciclo de conferencias ‘Europa en la cultura'” held at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Ecuador.

The conference takes place next week.

Tuesday the 10th of December, I will be given a talk on “Kierkegaard and the concept of love as a political force.”

“Everything I do I do with love, and so I also love with love,” Kierkegaard writes in Either-Or.


The following two days, the 11th and 12th respectively, I will be organizing two seminars or lectures on “Philosophy, literature and a new therapeutical approach to life.

During these seminars, I will relate my thoughts to philosophers such as Deleuze, Weil, Murdoch and Wittgenstein to both problematize our current achievement society, as well as proposing possible escape routes. To strengthen my argument, I will–briefly–refer to artists such as Olafur Eliasson, Karl Ove Knausgård, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf and Roberto Bolaño.

If you happen to be in Quito, Ecuador, you’re welcome!

Kierkegaard: A Responsible Philosopher?

Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) is without a doubt the greatest Danish philosopher. The father of existentialism. In a very simple way, he lived his philosophy. After all, to exist means not only to be alive and breathing but also to “stand out.” 

I always visualized existentialism as a vibe board, where a particular life stands out in an ocean of other lives. The image is romantic but it fits with Kierkegaard. He stood out. 

To the world he is known for setting the tone for such themes as fear, guilt, and anxiety, but also for choosing the choice, freedom, and love. In Denmark, his name is spoken with a certain amount of reverence because it can be difficult not to be seduced by his vision of life and poetic style, but also because he was radical. For example, Kierkegaard was openly critical of democracy when he elevated the individual above the crowd. In fact, he would not see imprisonment in isolation as one of the worst forms of punishment, because the truth emerges, undisturbed, between the individual and God. 

For Kierkegaard, I suggest, it all comes down to four important concepts: the self, truth, freedom, and one’s relationship to God.

Read the rest of the essay in Erraticus

Haste Makes Waste

“Of all the ridiculous things,” the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard writes, “the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy—to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work…What, I wonder, do these busy folks get done?”

Busyness, unlike what some might believe, does not signal importance, but rather is proof that the busy person does not know where he or she is headed here in life. Being busy is like a robot running around looking for an input. Haste makes waste. It is ridiculous.  

Haste is closely tied to general inattention (e.g. how we relate with care and awareness to what is happening). Do we learn from our previous experiences or disregard them? For example, hangovers or moral scruples can get many people to drink a little less the next time. If not after the first time, then the second. 

Haste becomes waste is intimately tied to the fact that many people have forgotten to inhabit their body. To acknowledge is not a passive activity like digesting a sandwich, but something active. An inhabitation of the body is involved. It moves in the direction of sound, of smell, of touch. The body can help us connect with life by qualifying the extent to which there is a reason to hurry. For example, upon hearing a child scream, I can turn to see whether the child is doing so because her father is swinging her about in affectionate play. 

One of the first Western psychotherapists, Wilhelm Reich, was interested in how the body’s energies influence the mind. Reich believed that the unconscious was not located in the brain but rather flowed through the body’s soft tissue. Although it is possible to feel bodily sensations such as pain, tension, and tenderness, most of us are rarely conscious of our body—until it hurts. In the day-to-day, most of us are unconscious about our bodily sensations: we live primarily from the neck up.  

This can be reminiscent of Mr. James Duffy from James Joyce’s short story, “A Painful Case” (1914): “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” Mr. Duffy lives without contact to his body, which he views askance as if his body did not belong to him. Whose ass is it he sees in the mirror? 

Perhaps, the rushing people Kierkegaard refers to as ridiculous are only chasing their minds. They might not even notice their own busyness. The morale is that all of the bodily sensations that are not felt or registered can be considered unconscious. Thus, the unconscious is not something deeply concealed, but just something as yet unknown. Haste becomes waste because we have no time to explore or examine life—in the here and now. As Plato’s hero Socrates states, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Why not adopt this statement for all aspects of life and suggest: the unexamined friendship, relationship, profession is not worth being in or doing?

To examine requires the opposite of haste such as paying attention potentially. 

Although it is customary to blame the Internet and social media for most wrongdoing, I do not think the concept haste makes waste can be explained by increased speed and technology alone. It is more likely tied to a fundamental lack of attention to and ignorance about what is important. Life today is filled with people suffering from sensory amputation. They rush around without getting anywhere. This may sound arrogant, but next time you meet a busy person, who is always in a rush, ask where he or she is heading. The simple question might shock them to slow down and actually think. 

Like the rest of us, they too come from nowhere getting elsewhere. The point is to slow down once in a while, and do nothing. I do nothing every day. Perhaps—at least, it happens for me—then we realize if it is worth going anywhere—and going there fast. In the end, we are all heading toward our death. 

The question is whether we take the opportunity to live while we can.  

This thing called vacation is a welcome opportunity to slow down, pay attention and examine whether your life is worth living. Most people rush for a reason. Seldom this reason is what makes their life worth living. 

First published in Erraticus, August 7, 2019

Mindfulness og skolen

I medierne kan man til tider læse, at folkeskolens elever er stressede, angste og urolige. Nogle foreslår mindfulness som en løsning på problemet, mens andre mener, at mindfulness ikke er andet end et plaster på en syg præstationskultur.

Jeg er enig i, at præstationskulturen er syg, men uenig i, hvorvidt mindfulness blot er et plaster. Faktisk mener jeg, at mindfulness sagtens kan bidrage til udfoldelsen og vedligeholdelsen af pædagogik baseret på en kærlig tilgang til læring i stedet for absurde præstationsidealer.

Kigger vi nærmere på kritikken af mindfulness, er den ofte ganske paradoksal. Enten er mindfulness for religiøst, eller også er den for lidt i kontakt med den smukke buddhistiske livsfilosofi.

Så hvad er mindfulness i grunden?

Læs resten af kronikken i Information

When life blooms

I’m pleased to announce that my new book, When life blooms – Breathe with Jeppe Hein will be released November 28th.

The publisher writes about the book:

“Danish artist Jeppe Hein soared to the top of the international art scene before the age of 35. His works were showcased at the world’s finest exhibitions and sold for sky-high prices. Then suddenly his body said stop. In 2009 Hein went down with stress.

In this book philosopher Finn Janning follows Jeppe Hein’s development from the tome immediately after his diagnosis with burn out and onward – a period where Hein underwent psychoanalysis and developed and interest in yoga, breathing exercises and spirituality.

Janning shows how spirituality has become more present in Hein’s works, and in the book, he develops an existential philosophy in continuation of the artists spirituality and art.”

I may add:

It’s a philosophical biography that describes the life of the artist Jeppe Hein. In doing so, I’ve tried to exemplify Gilles Deleuze’s idea that “life is not personal,” that is to say, each life is a case study.

I choose this approach as a way of addressing the narcissism of the artist without making the narrative confronting, or in anyway judgmental.

Instead, I illustrate how Jeppe is formed by the major cultural trends during the last 40 years, such as the growing accelerating and spirituality and social entrepreneurship. He is an artist of his time.

It’s a book that tests and nuances the popularity of today’s spirituality through a philosophical, primarily existential lens.


Whenlife blooms_cover

Last, although I’m glad to have a book of mine being translated into English (it was written in Danish), I’ve detected a few mistakes, see more here.

Når livet blomstrer

Den 28. november udkommer min nye bog, Når livet blomstrer – Breathe with Jeppe Hein.

Jeg har skrevet bogen i forlængelse af den franske filosofs Gilles Deleuzes ide om, at “livet ikke er personligt.” Snarere er livet et casestudie, der kan rumme varierende grader af eksemplariske fortællinger.

Denne tilgang valgte jeg af flere grunde.

For det første, som en kærlig måde at konfrontere Jeppe Heins narcissisme på, uden at dømme denne. For det andet, tænkte jeg, at det kunne være sjovt, at skrive en slags biografi præget af tidens tendenser – fra 70erne og frem til i dag. For det tredje, for at vise hvordan hans kunst i høj grad er formet af tiden, fx den øgede konkurrencementalitet og teknologiske acceleration, der for mange, inklusive Jeppe Hein, fører til stress og angst. Efterfølgende finder mange, inklusive Jeppe Hein, mening i den fremvoksende spiritualitet.

Så, bogen er både eksemplarisk og en mytedræber. Den er et stykke liv på papir!

Forlaget skriver bl.a.:

“I 2009 sidder Jeppe Hein i en flyver i 10.000 meters højde, da han får et angstanfald og ikke kan trække vejret. Efter et år med over 15 udstillinger og utallige rejser siger hans krop simpelthen stop.

”Jeg måtte lære at trække vejret igen,” fortæller Jeppe Hein i bogen.

Forfatter og filosof Finn Janning har været ven med Jeppe Hein, siden de var helt unge. I bogen følger han på nærmeste hold Jeppe Heins menneskelige og spirituelle udvikling efter hans burn out og viser, hvordan den er uløseligt knyttet sammen med hans kunst.

Undervejs i beretningen om Jeppe Heins spirituelle og kunstneriske rejse giver Finn Jannings indsigtsfulde analyser en baggrund for at forstå, hvad der er på spil. Han kommer rundt om filosoffer som Aristoteles og Kierkegaard, den spirituelle tyske lærer Eckhart Tolle, forfatterne Albert Camus og Peter Høeg og mange flere, og dermed bliver bogen en slags filosofisk monografi, som læseren kan bruge til selv at overveje nogle af livets store spørgsmål.

Janning udvikler i bogen en eksistensfilosofi i forlængelse af kunstnerens spiritualitet og værker.”

God fornøjelse …

Når livet blomstrer

Philosophy as fiction

“For me, philosophy is a way of living and not an academic discipline that requires you to swallow a certain amount of information to pass. Most great novelists are philosophers. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said that literature in order to become philosophy must become fiction. I like that. It also shows that the distinction between philosophy and literature is rather new—perhaps stemming from Kant—but does it matter if Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, de Beauvoir, and all the others are classified as philosophers or writers?”

Read the rest of the interview in Under the Gum Tree.

Kierkegaard’s True Love

In the twilight of Søren Kierkegaard’s life, he begins to question his own philosophical fundament. He did not plan this. Actually, he would prefer to avoid it. But it is happening. While lying for nearly five weeks at the Royal Frederiks Hospital certain images, memories, and ideas surface.

Some of these trouble him.

He inscribed himself at the hospital after suffering from a blackout in the middle of the day. The purpose for this inscription is not recovery. Although he is only forty-two years old, he knows that this is a last preparation for the inevitable fact of life: that it ends. Soon he will meet his only master: God.

What he didn’t expect were the questions now emerging.

Read the rest of the short story here