Uttering the d-word

By Harry van Versendaal

Irvin Yalom has seen many people lie on his couch all these years to rid themselves of unwanted painful feelings and fantasies. None of the symptoms have been more pervasive and at the same time neglected, the psychiatrist-turned-author now says, than the terror of death: people’s fear that their own personal world will disappear forever in a black hole of nothingness. Yalom, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Standford University who was catapulted to fame in Greece with his best-seller “When Nietzche Wept,” explains to Athens Plus how staring down at one’s personal death can result in a richer and more fulfilling life. Yalom’s latest book on the issue, “Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death,” has been published in Greek by Agra.

Why is your book titled “Staring at the Sun”?

It’s an aphorism by Francois de la Rochefoucauld, a French writer, posted under the title of the book. I call it “Staring at the Sun” just to point out how we’ve always been taught not to stare straight at the sun or death. But I think the idea of being afraid to even think about this thing and keeping it all kind of repressed is sometimes a bad idea, and staring death down, learning from death is another thing entirely. It can be enriching to your life.

I read your books as being about man’s search for meaning in a god-less, meaning-less universe. Is that so?

They are partially about that because I do work with meaning. I think of meaning as being one of great ultimate concerns, and dealing with mortality is different one… This book is more about death, but you can’t separate them. Meaning is in there. In this book, I am focusing primarily on people who are terrified of death.

Different people seem to fear different things about death…

Well, some people fear death because they haven’t lived life. They haven’t lived their life completely. That’s when I used the quote from Kazantzakis, you know Zorba’s idea that you have to leave death nothing but a burned out castle.” Other people fear death because they worry of what it will do to their children. Some people might fear death because they fear of the afterlife, something that Epicurus told us not to do. Some people fear death because they really want to hear the end of the story. It varies tremendously among individuals.

You have said that to deny death is to deny our human nature. How is that?

Well, we can deny death. There are many different belief systems that deny the presence of death. We can also do it on a very individual notion by having it out of our mind and believing that we are so special that we’re going to get larger and larger and more famous and more powerful all our lives and never think of the decline in life. Some people have a mid-life crisis, sometime quite late in life when they suddenly realize that – my god – they are going to perish just like everyone else. Or we can also deny death through lots of thought experiments or religious systems which promise immortal life.

What is your problem with religion? Is it that religion is a lie or that it is naive, in the sense that it prevents you from living your life to the full?

I won’t agree with either of those, because no one is going to read my book if I do that. It’s too controversial. And I do have to have respect for people’s religious beliefs – people who I see. But I think that the people who are religious fundamentalists and take religion too much into their lives in a sense may not be seeing human nature and the human condition as it really is and may be denying mortality and not facing to the existential facts of life.

Is your book of any use to a believer?

I sure hope so. I’ve had a lot of people write me who are believers. The point is there are all kinds of different sort of believers. If you have a fairly closed mind then I think the book may be unsettling to you. if you can believe in what the basic message of the scriptures is, which is to love others as you love yourself, then I think it can be very useful.

What do you think of the wave of the so-called new atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens?

I pretty much agree with everything they say. I think Hitchens perhaps is far more abrasive than he needs to be because he is preaching to the converted.

Do we pick books that merely cement our convictions?

I think many people do that. That’s why I think it’s so important to have a more open mind. It is quite surprising when you think about America and all of these statistics that you see about the huge percentage of people who believe in heaven and god and all that and yet take a look at the sales figures of Dawkins or Hitchens.

You seem to draw a lot on Nietzsche…

This book is written from the standpoint of someone who is a secular humanist. There is nothing in this book that probably Nietzsche would not agree with.

You seem to have a lot to say about Nietzsche’s life-affirming philosophy. But he wasn’t a particularly happy character himself, was he?

No, he wasn’t. But he was not a despairing person. And despite a life of tremendous illness – he was a very sick man – he had enormous persistence. He managed to overcome it in his spirit and in his philosophy as well. That’s what I like about Nietzsche compared to Schopenhauer who is much more life negating.

You have in the past quoted psychoanalyst Alan Wheelis’s story about a man who envies his dog because it has a purpose in life – fetching a stick thrown by his master. But it seems to me that the dog is happy because it doesn’t know – it is ignorant. Is it perhaps better not to know?

Alan Wheelis I think appreciated that. But at the same time because he was quite a despairing individual he sometimes longed for the kind of simplistic mind of the dog who doesn’t have to think about himself. For whom the burden of too much self-awareness is lifted. And I can’t tell you how many people, how many patients I’ve seen who wished they could believe in religion and have all these problems solved to them… so some people don’t have the knack for it or otherwise they are blessed or cursed with self-awareness.

The unbearable lightness of being…

Yes exactly.

You have said that therapists tend to avoid the issue of death. Why do they do that?

Well, it’s not built into any of the major theoretical systems. And I am trying to change that. It’s not built into it from the very beginning with Freud. Freud really has no place for death. He turns it into something else, into abandonment or into castration. But he feels that death is not important in the unconscious because we have no unconscious experience of death. It’s convoluted acrobatic kind of system on his part – I think he made a great error in that.

The second reason is much more personal. I think therapists aren’t dealing with their own death very much. Sometimes they don’t want to the patient about that, because they’re not quite sure they can deal with it themselves. They have actually nothing to offer to the patient. I write this book in order to try and correct that.

(This interview was first published in Athens Plus in July 2008)

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