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.