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Who's isn't afraid of death? Even those of us who believe in the best of afterlives are often overcome by thoughts of our own mortality. In this most personal of books, Psychiatrist, novelist, and Stanford professor Irvin D. Yalom, who turned seventy-eight this summer (you can watch him age in the photo-animation on his website) shares his thoughts on death, including observations on the approaches of famous philosophers and anonymous patients, past and present.
No stranger to anxiety (he literally wrote the textbook on existential psychotherapy), Yalom makes no false promises. There are no pretences here of being able to completely cure readers from death fear, nor any boasts of his own fearlessness. Instead, Yalom lays out an open buffet of - frequently contradictory - strategies for coping with our all-too-human fear of death for us to pick and mix from. These include 'comforting' thoughts and techniques which tame our anxiety, thus preventing it from ever escalating into horror. While Yalom offers no religious consolation, he admirably also avoids the antagonism of fundamentalist atheists such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. His reasons, however, are not merely ones of tolerance and respect, but also highly pragmatic medical ones:
"I cannot imagine attempting to undermine any belief system that is serving a person well, even a belief system that appears entirely fantastical to me. Thus, when persons with religious faith seek my help, I never challenge their core belief. Often one that has been engrained since early life. On the contrary I often search for ways to support their belief" (p. 192).
So far, so helpful, but when it comes to the printed word such unabashed pragmatism is not without its perils. It is hard, after all, to put any testimonial trust in an author whose criteria for good advice seems to be 'what works' rather than what is true (which is not to say that Yalom subscribes to the philosophical doctrine of pragmatism which attempts to characterise the latter in terms of the former). This cavalier attitude towards the truth manifests itself in the abovementioned tensions between the thoughts expressed in various unreferenced wisdom nuggets which decorate the text. Thus, for example, we are advised to remember (i) that the 'rippling' effects of our actions (viz. our influence on others) will continue well beyond our deaths but also (ii) that the fact that everything is 'transcient'(i.e. that its existence is temporally limited since it will ultimately crumble to dust) will crumble to dust. Yet if (ii) is true, and temporal limitation does not matter, why should we care at all about (i)?
Such fast food for thought threatens the book's academic rigour, not least when it is accompanied by a side of lies and a shake. We are told, for example, that Epicurus believed the root cause of human misery to be 'our omnipresent fear of death'. Yet it is well documented that the Greek philosopher saw this fear as just one of many (equally fundamental) causes of misery. Indeed to the extent that he thought there was one root cause this was not fear but what he called our non-natural desires (which he further characterised as empty since they could not be satisfactorily produced). While Epicurus takes the desire for immortality to be empty and also points out that many other desires which initially appear to be unrelated it, such as the desire for fame, are disguised manifestations of this empty wish, he does not claim that all non-natural desires are derived from the fear of death. If anything characterises empty desires for Epicurus it is desires for pleasure (he would have resented our current ordinary usage of the term 'Epicurean'). Indeed the desire to live a long and healthy life is - along with any desires to do what will help us to achieve this - perfectly natural (and therefore good) for Epicurus.
While some of the philosophical and psychological ideas that Yalom simplifies will be of interest to certain readers, the book's strengths (and there are plenty of them) lie elsewhere. Not only does Yalom succeed in being both personal and sincere without being private in a celebrity age where much of what is written somehow manages to be private without being either sincere or personal, but he does so in a way which conveys to the reader the fact that even (indeed perhaps especially) the greatest minds in history have had to struggle with death anxiety. fBy including sections on his medical experience with patients and advice for therapists, in addition to the ideas of past philosophers and his own personal memoir, he succeeds in producing an evenly balanced book that may well be the perfect introduction for many haunted by the thought of their own death.
© 2009 Constantine Sandis
Constantine Sandis is currently a visiting fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies.