A Therapist Stares at Death

Filed in Gather Books Essential by on January 18, 2008 0 Comments

Back in the early days of Amazon, someone decided that, while books should be rated on a five-point scale, reviews should be either ‘useful?’ or ‘not useful?’. What a good idea. Something that helps you decide to buy or not-a perfectly binary process-should be judged in a similarly binary fashion. Either it helps or it doesn?t.

A book that makes the modest claim of helping the reader overcome the terror of death can probably best be judged the same way. Did it help or not?

In spite of the claim on the cover, most of this book is devoted to Dr. Yalom?s assertion that it is the fear of death that?s at the root of all neurosis. This stands in competition with Freud?s claim that it?s all about sex. Now, even though death is nowhere near as much fun to think about as sex, the argument is intuitively persuasive. Ignoring the obvious can?t lead you anywhere good.
Yalom?s efforts to use this insight in therapy seem both wise and efficacious. The awareness of the inevitability of death is, or at least can be the spur to enjoying life. ?Death? as a buddy of mine used to say ?is your friend?.
The second part of the book-devoted to overcoming one?s own terror is grounded not in therapy, but in philosophy. Specifically, Yalom focuses on the Epicureans and vehemently denies the efficacy of spiritual systems. Then he points to the value of reminding oneself that impermanence is immanent in the universe: Everything changes. But that observation is at the heart of Buddhism, one of the world?s most venerable spiritual traditions. In fact, there?s nothing in Yalom?s consoling philosophy that doesn?t already exist in this religion.
But Yalom?s Buddhism is pretty thin emotional gruel. He allows that ?the way to value life, the way to feel compassion for others, the way to love anything with greatest depth is to be awware that these experiences are destined to be lost?. He stops short of suggesting that perhaps there is reincarnation or perhaps the death of the self is a necessary prelude to another kind of being.
In the end (so to speak) Yalom shies away from any advice other than the acceptance of the inevitable.
Yes, death is a good reminder about how to live a life, but Yalom leaves the reader unconvinced that life alone can silence the noisy terror of death. But being reminded to live, here and now and in the best way one can at least puts death in its place.
So: is Staring at the Sun helpful or not? Yes, it?s helpful, a tonic for the spirit. But taken with a liberal dose of the Compassionate Buddha, it might be even more effective.

–Lynn Hoffman, author of THE NEW SHORT COURSE IN WINE and
the novel bang BANG. ISBN 9781601640005

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