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Book review: “Staring at the Sun — Overcoming the Terror of Death” by Irvin D. Yalom

Here’s an experiment:

You wake up in the middle of the night, and standing next to your bed is an angel or a devil or a genii or some spirit of some kind.

This being tells you that you are going to have to live your life again — exactly as you have already lived it. You will make the same choices, suffer the same pains, say the same words. Everything will be identical.

This will not only happen once, but again and again and again on into eternity.

What’s your reaction?

Do you wail and gnash your teeth? Or do you think that would be just fine?


Shock therapy

Friedrich Nietzsche laid out this “mightiest thought” in his late 19th-century book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom includes it in his 2008 book Staring at the Sun — Overcoming the Terror of Death. And he adds:

The idea of living your identical life again and again for all eternity can be jarring, a sort of petite existential shock therapy. It often serves as a sobering thought experiment, leading you to consider seriously how you are really living.



This scenario is like shock therapy, he writes, because it makes a person look at what his or her life is like at the moment. Is it relatively happy? Relatively fulfilling? Or dry and frustrating?

scooge...detailAlong these lines, Yalom also recalls the story of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. After leading a long life as an emotionally gnarled skinflint, Scrooge endures three dreams during the night of Christmas Eve, and wakes up vowing to turn over a new leaf.

Those dreams were, Yalom writes,

a form of existential shock therapy or, as I shall refer to it in this book, an awakening experience. The Ghost of the Future (The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come) visits Scrooge and delivers a powerful dose of shock therapy by offering him a preview of the future. Scrooge observes his neglected corpse, sees strangers pawning his belongings (even his bed sheets and nightdress), and overhears members of his community discuss his death and dismiss it lightly.

Waking up, Scrooge realizes that the future he’s seen is not set. He can change it — and, Dickens writes, he does.

He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world….And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.


Awakening experiences

Yalom notes that, at times, clients come to him with very overt death anxiety, but even more common are those whose complaints don’t seem at first to have anything to do with death. He writes that, often, psychological problems can arise at the time a person is approaching or passing a life milestone — going to a school reunion, for instance, or sitting down to do estate planning, or turning 50 (or some other major age signpost).

What these milestones have in common is that they are reminders that we are moving along the road of life, and the end of that journey is death.

As a therapist, Yalom works with clients to recognize the reality of death, but not to wallow in fear. Instead, it’s possible to employ this greater awareness of death “as an awakening experience, a profoundly useful catalyst for major life changes.”

For instance, he relates that, because of suppressed death fear, one client had long ignored his feelings about his brother’s death as a teen. But, in facing that memory and facing his own eventual demise, the client

made far-reaching changes in himself: he stopped drinking cold turkey (without reliance on a recovery program), vastly improved his relationship with his wife, quit his job and entered the business of training seeing-eye dogs — a profession that offered meaning by providing something useful to the world.


“The worm at the core of existence”

A prominent psychiatrist once advised therapists to avoid discussing death in most cases: “Don’t scratch where it doesn’t itch.” But Yalom argues:

Death, however, does itch. It itches all the time; it is always with us, scratching at some inner door, whirring softly, barely audibly, just under the membrane of consciousness. Hidden and disguised, leaking out in a variety of symptoms, it is the wellspring of many of our worries, stresses, and conflicts.

yalom --- creaturesLater in the book, he adds: “We all face the same terror, the wound of mortality, the worm at the core of existence.” And he means “all.”

One 50-page chapter in this book is devoted to Yalom’s own struggles to come to grips with the fact of death. Not only that, but, earlier this year, he published a second book about death Creatures of a Day and Other Tales of Psychotherapy in which he tells the stories of ten clients facing death-related issue. And again tells about his own fears around death.

On June 13, he turned 84.


“4500 heartbeats an hour”

Yalom is a fan of aphorisms, and here are some he includes in the book:

• “Consummate your life.” — Nietzsche.
• “Leave death nothing but a burned out castle.” — Zorba the Greek in the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis.
• “I was going quietly to my end…certain that the last burst of my heart would be inscribed on the last page of my work and that death would be taking only a dead man.” — Jean-Paul Sartre
• “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” — Woody Allen.
• “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).” — Vladimir Nabokov.

Indeed, life in that rocking cradle, notes Yalom, is terribly painful for each of us. We know that our life is “a brief crack of light.” And he quotes Paul Theroux who suggests that such knowledge leads us “to love life and value it with such passion that It may be the ultimate cause of all joy and all art.”


“One’s finiteness and transiency”

Irvin_YalomYalom has no religious faith in an afterlife. He sees all such beliefs as misguided and self-deceiving.

Nonetheless, even those who believe in heaven or reincarnation or something else after death have to acknowledge that such faith is faith. In other words, it is not something that can be proven.

What doesn’t need proof is the reality that each of us, born into this life, will exit it at some point. This is our only time through. There will be no do-over. (Even if I were to be reincarnated, I wouldn’t be Patrick T. Reardon.)

The Nietzsche “mightiest thought” suggests a continuous loop of the same life over and over. He wasn’t saying that’s how it is. It was his way — and now Yalom’s way — to get us to think about what we do with our ONE life.

And, despite his disbelief in an afterlife, Yalom does suggest that there are ways in which we continue to live on — for good or for ill. Such as “rippling.” He writes:

Rippling refers to the fact that each of us creates — often without our conscious intent or knowledge — concentric circles of influence that may affect others for years, even for generations. That is, the effect we have on other people is in turn passed on to others, much as the ripples in a pond go on and on until they’re no longer visible but continuing at the nano level. The idea that we can leave something of ourselves, even beyond our knowing, offers a potent answer to those who claim that meaninglessness inevitably flows from one’s finiteness and transiency.

Patrick T. Reardon

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