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|Point of View|
Point of View
By Ryan Howes
Embracing Life, Facing Death
Throughout his long career, Irvin Yalom, psychotherapy's most prominent practitioner of Existential Psychotherapy, has argued that most therapists don't go nearly deep enough with their clients, no matter how far they've delved into their family background or psychosexual dream life. For him, beneath the ordinary problems of depression, anxiety, anger, and insecurity that clients bring into therapy, there beats the muffled drumbeat of something darker. The focus of his work has been bringing to light the more universal and terrifying themes that lurk below the surface of clinical work—the challenge of freedom, the inevitability of human loneliness and isolation, the troubled search for meaning, and the real biggie: the certainty of death. That theme—facing the sure knowledge that all our fondest hopes, dreams, projects, and plans must end with our own oblivion, however diversified our portfolios may be—is the focus of his book Staring into the Sun, which he discusses in this interview.
RH: My 101-year-old grandmother is much closer to dying than a 37-year-old like myself, yet I worry, while she's at peace. She's fine with the idea of passing on.
YALOM: Well, your grandmother probably feels she's gone through her life's course and may feel relatively satisfied with the way she's lived. She may not be feeling she's sitting on a tremendous storehouse of unlived life, and she's comfortable with that.
RH: Do you feel comfortable with the amount of life you've had?
YALOM: I do. I feel, frankly, that this is a fairly good period of my life right now. I understand exactly what you mean, though—you've got a lot of anxiety about death, it's very frightening to you. You feel you haven't really lived yet; there are too many parts of you that haven't been fully experienced or expressed. You want to see the end of stories—see how your seeds sprout in the future.
RH: In your book, you write, "You cannot stare straight into the face of the sun or death." And then you spend 300 pages doing just that. How did you prepare yourself for that task?
YALOM: I'm really sort of denying that you cannot stare. In fact, not only can you stare, you should be staring in the face of the sun—there's a great deal of benefit to doing that. I've been doing it a very long time, really.
I started after I began to see a group of people who really had to talk about these issues because there was no escaping from it for them. These were people who had a death sentence because they had metastatic cancer. I worked for a long time, most of a decade, with these patients.
So that was my major exposure—I was working many, many hours a week with these patients. I was undergoing a fairly traditional, orthodox psychoanalysis, and it suddenly dawned on me that we hadn't spent a single one of our 700 hours talking about these death issues. That was part of the preparation for the book: dealing with a lot of anxiety, starting to work with that.
RH: You're a bit critical of the psychotherapeutic community for not looking at death anxiety more deeply. What can we do about this? Is it a matter of our getting more therapy?
YALOM: What I've tried to do is to write this book. I really do believe that death anxiety comes up all the time in therapy. It's just that we aren't willing to see it, or are afraid to see it. With my patients, I often run into it; it's almost unusual when I don't.
Life is so capricious really—you can't protect someone all the time. Things happen. As you know, people lose young children, which is the most devastating loss of all. I've worked with people who lost a child 30 years ago, and they still can't quite get their minds around what happened.