Staring at the sun – Irvin D Yalom: books that have helped 1

I read this about 3 years ago, so the details are hazy, but the things I took from it are:

  • Death is scary.
  • We die alone.
  • Live your life better in the knowledge that you will die.
  • Connections bring comfort.

Putting it like that looks awfully bleak. It doesn’t look like a terribly insightful or innovative set of points. It’s not a trio of insights that’s going to set the world on fire.

Let me explain a little more.

Irvin Yalom is  Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford. I just googled him and he looks like Mr Spock would look if he became a psychoanalyst. I don’t know if he’s still practicing, but he was in 2008 when this book was published.

The American tradition of psychiatry is, I think, much more influenced by and active in psychotherapy/analysis than the British one, which tends to leave all that to psychotherapists. That means that he has spent a lot of time listening to a lot of people talking about their lives in incredible depth and with incredible intimacy. What he shares with us in this book is the wisdom that has come from that experience.

The thing about obvious truths is that you can know them in your head a long time before you know them with your body. I’ve always known that death is scary. I coped with that fear the way everybody else does: I turned away from it, I ignored it, I did other stuff, I accepted the delusion that I was immortal.

If I’m being absolutely honest here, that’s still what I do, 99% of the time. Maybe 99.99% of the time. But in the days leading up to my oncology appointments, when I go back into the regime of scans and the waiting, I reconnect with the anxiety I felt when I had my initial diagnosis, and there is something helpful for me in knowing that that fear is normal, that everybody feels it (if they allow themselves to).

You die alone. But there is comfort in other people and in the connection with them. Suddenly I’m thinking of 9/11, and the messages people in the towers left for their loved ones, and the people who jumped off the towers hand in hand. I hope there was comfort for them in that human contact. And all of those messages were of love. Nobody rang their worst enemy and reminded them that they hated them. Nobody rang their partner and mentioned the fact that they hadn’t put out the bins again, or that they couldn’t stand their snoring. They left messages of love. Of connectivity.

We die alone, but we live in a great web of connection. That is what makes us human. Even in the greatest darkness we reach out to comfort and be comforted.

Living with dying #1

Ha ha ha. You’re dying. I’m dying.

That’s the nature of life. It is transient – a bird flying from window to window of a lighted hall. We all know that. But it’s really hard to hold on to that idea – to really believe it.

I was discussing immortality with my 12 year old the other day. I said I quite fancied the idea of living for ever. He shook his head (he’s so wise!) and said “Think about it, Mum. The whole universe is a cold, dead, empty space, and you’re still hanging there, all alone.”

I sometimes wonder what he reads.

Nevertheless, he’s right. And even if they believe in the immortality of the soul, most people are kind of upset when other people they love die, and most people kind of accept that if there is any kind of immortality it is in some other state, not this actual physical body, on this actual, physical planet drifting onwards through infinity.

I am probably marginally better at believing I am going to die than most people are, just because I’ve been given a bit of a hint as to how I’m going to go. Those little nodules lurking in my lungs are going to blossom and grow and eventually starve me to death. Something like that.

For the last few  years I have, from time to time, thought about how to approach the process of dying. I have wondered how much time I should invest into worrying about it. I have wondered whether I really need to floss EVERY night. I have worried about how things will be for my kids, what I’ll be missing from. I haven’t worried too much about pain, but I have worried about nausea. Not all the time, obviously. I buy new clothes. I go on holiday. I go to work. I empty the dishwasher.

Most of the time all those thoughts and worries sit in a little box on a shelf at the back of my head. But I thought maybe it would be worth taking the box down from time to time and unpacking it a little. Examining the contents. Sharing them with you. Letting you know about the things I do to keep that box safe.