Kierkegaard’s lesson

This morning the radio brought in news of Søren Kierkegaard’s two-hundredth birth anniversary. The program that followed charted the Danish philosopher’s life and explored his legacy. Listening to it during the morning routine at home, I found my mind wandering to those college days when I first read about Kierkegaard in Sophie’s World, a novel by Jostein Gaarder. The novel contains a series of letters a philosopher named Alberto Knox writes to Sophie Amundsen, a teenager living in Norway. The letters speak engagingly of the history of philosophy, and they take Sophie (and the reader) on a journey with great philosophers from Socrates to Sartre. What I remember vividly are not the ideas of those great philosophers but a small incident involving Sophie’s best friend Joanna, where Joanna and her boyfriend Jeremy kiss in the garden and the adults nearby simply laugh. I was in my early twenties when I read the novel, and my first kiss was still a year away. The envy I felt towards Sophie and her friends, living in a country where kissing was commonplace, was heightened by an awareness of my own circumstance, living in a conservative South Indian town in the mid-Nineties, where even holding a girl’s hand needed enormous courage and gumption.

Our instinct for evolution, I told myself then, is far more powerful than our desire to know ourselves and our search for meaning. Things haven’t changed much since: I’d rather kiss a girl today than learn from a book the meaning of life.