Over the past quarter century Irvin Yalom has established himself as the world’s leading group psychotherapist. In this article, he explores how the knowledge of our own mortality affects the unconscious mind of every human being.
At some point in life – sometimes in youth, sometimes late – each of us is due to awaken to our mortality. There are so many triggers: a glance in the mirror at your sagging jowls, graying hair, stooping shoulders; the march of birthdays, especially those round decades – fifty, sixty, seventy; meeting a friend you have not seen in a long while and being shocked at how he or she has aged; seeing old photographs of yourself and those long dead who peopled your childhood; encountering death in a dream.
What do you feel when you have such experiences? What do you do with them? Do you plunge into frenetic activity to burn off the anxiety and avoid the subject? Try to remove wrinkles with cosmetic surgery or dye your hair? Decide to stay thirty-nine for a few more years? Distract yourself quickly with work and everyday routine? Forget all such experiences? Ignore your dreams?
I urge you not to distract yourself. Instead, savor awakening. Take advantage of it. Pause as you stare into the photograph of the younger you. Let the poignant moment sweep over you and linger a bit; taste the sweetness of it as well as the bitterness.
Keep in mind the advantage of remaining aware of death, of hugging its shadow to you. such awareness can integrate the darkness with your spark of life and enhance your life while you still have it. The way to value life, the way to feel compassion for others, the way to love anything with greatest depth is to be aware that these experiences are destined to be lost.
Many times I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see a patient make substantial positive changes very late in life, even close to death. It’s never too late. You’re never too old.
My personal coping with death
Few of my readers will fail to wonder whether, at seventy-five, I’m coping with me own death anxiety through the writing of this book. I need to be more transparent. I often ask patients the question, ‘What is it in particular that most frightens you about death?’ I’ll pose that question to myself.
The first thing that comes to me is the anguish of leaving my wife, my soul mate since we were both fifteen. An image enters my mind: I see her getting into her car and driving off alone. Let me explain. Every week I drive to see patients in San Francisco on Thursdays, and she takes the train Fridays to join me for the weekend. We then drive back together to Palo Alto, where I drop her off to retrieve her car at the train station parking lot. I always wait, watching through my rearview mirror to make certain she gets her car started, and only then do I drive away. The image of her getting into the car alone after my death, without my watching, without my protecting her, floods me with inexpressible pain.
Of course, you might say, that is pain about her pain. What about pain for myself? My answer is that there will be no ‘me’ to feel pain. I am in accord with Epicurus’ conclusion: ‘Where death is, I am not.’ There won’t be any me there to feel terror, sadness, grief, deprivation. My consciousness will be extinguished, the switch flicked off. Lights out. I also find comfort in Epicurus’ symmetry argument: after death I will be in the same state of nonbeing as before birth.
This is an adapted extract from Staring at the Sun by Irvin Yalom.
Each person fears death in their own way. Despite turning to the comforts of children, or wealth, or belief in a higher power, death anxiety is never completely subdued: it is always there, lurking in the hidden ravines of our minds.
In STARING AT THE SUN, master psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom faces his own fear of death and examines its role in many patients' fears, stresses and depression. With characteristic wisdom and illuminating case histories, he shows how confronting and coping with death allows us to live in a richer, more compassionate way.