Thesis Blog: The Dizziness of Freedom

This afternoon I read about Kierkegaard’s definition of dread, which is this fear of nothing (no object to the fear), a state that “concerns the realm of possible choices and not actual facts[;] it is the fear of the unknown, the not yet, but still of an unknown one realizes is possible.” Kierkegaard said these unknown possibilities were at the same time both “attractive” and “repugnant”; inducing a “dizziness of freedom” in the decision-maker.*

Now, after having met with Chelle, my thesis adviser, I feel overwhelmed with dread, with this “sweet anxiety” of Kierkegaard’s.

Chelle says I can’t make a wrong decision with this paper topic, and I think: well, crap, yes I can. In the very least, I have this dread following me around, insisting that’s the case.

I have to narrow my paper now — a ton. Saying “um, something about an Updike character, sex, shame, Augustine, and the body” is a little too broad. I have to choose either a novel/short story or a theme to trace in multiple books (of the same series or era), then choose a single theologian (and a single theologian’s unshifting thought on a single topic).

In other words: narrow!

But I like wide, broad roads. I like non-committal paper topics. I like writing the abstract after the paper is done.

And I do not want to have to choose just one Updike book to focus on. They’re all so good! I can’t even get myself to commit to a single series. The Scarlet Letter trilogy! The Rabbit Tetralogy! The books he wrote in the ’60s! The ’90s! How about short stories! Poems! The few plays he wrote!

In dread there is the egoistic infinity of possibility, which does not tempt like a definite choice, but alarms and fascinates with its sweet anxiety.

–Kierkegaard, The Concept of Dread, p. 55, as cited in Hunt.

John Updike and the Three Great Secret Things by George Hunt

About Lauren Sawyer

I am a Ph.D. student studying social ethics in New Jersey. I love coffee, rainy days, and John Updike. Learn more about me at