In a post several months ago, I wrote a dedication, and a sort of homage, to my college mentor, and close friend, Tim Stroup. I’d like to follow up that post with a post about my second mentor, a man whom I’ve never met, but who has, nonetheless, had a significant impact on my life and my work as a therapist: Irv Yalom – The Great Existentialist. I discovered Irv’s books in a graduate school class on group psychotherapy; it was actually his work on group therapy that introduced me to his ideas. But, although his group work was important, it was his work on death that grasped me and never let go.
For those familiar with Irv Yalom, his major theme, what one would call his bread and butter, is death anxiety, the unmitigated and unrelenting terror of death. Shockingly, or maybe not so much for those who know me, his exposition on this poignant “existential given” (a fact about life as a whole) was the great engine fueling my passion for, and my consumption with, existentialism. For Irv, death was an existential truth, one that was all too frequently swept under the rug because of its meaning, it’s finality; it was a tragedy for most, engendering a denial so deep that life seemed perpetual, and with that, created was the real tragedy: the denial of our only lives.
Irv taught me many things. He taught me how to accept uncertainty, he taught me how to disavow my preconceived notions of my clients’ ills; and, most importantly, he taught me how to live. Irv’s work has been greatly misunderstood by too many; much like with the ancient Egyptians, it was viewed as morbid and cynical, and rejected at times as life-denying. And just as with the critics of Egyptian culture, too few understood that to deny life was to deny death; and Irv was the great seer who sought to deliver us from our misconceptions and our subsequent tragedies. He knew what the ancient Egyptians knew: life and death are intertwined, and the notion of one produces the other.
Those who know me well know of my deep and profound fear of death; and, they know of my, sometimes, reckless and unpremeditated behavior aimed at its reduction. Finding Irv was akin to finding myself; it was akin to discovering a great gem which I knew hid deep within my soul. Irv expressed all of the things that I wanted to say but couldn’t; he gave me a voice at a time when I needed it most, for my patients and for myself. Connection, empathy, understanding, and strength – I’ve found all of these qualities in Irv’s work, and words can never express my gratitude for it. Through his words and his expressed deeds, I was afforded the gift of discovering a healthy outlet for my fear, and I learned how truly precious life was; it was, in essence, his gift of therapy.
As I’m sure is obvious by now, my work is deeply informed by his concepts, and even more so his deeds. Existential therapy is a treatment for death – its hold on us, to be specific. To be an existentialist is to accept life and to utilize it for empowerment and strength – it’s to become fully alive, to become fully oneself. Death, life, freedom, connection, isolation, and love – these are all of the issues which pertain to each one of us, and these are the very notions which Irv spoke of most. For Irv, they are all intertwined and comprise the great plethora of beauty in the world, the beauty of life.
I hope that you’ll someday read his works and be as captivated and empowered as I was when I did. To hold death on one’s tongue, Montaigne once remarked, is recommended; for the more we think about dying, the more we desire to be among the living. It is a great shame when one dies, but an even worse one if they had’t lived. Irv tells us a great story about a mischievous cat in his book entitled Momma and the Meaning of Life; in that tale, the erudite cat learns a valuable lesson: he learns how to live. And in that apparent entrapment of your own mortality, I wish the same for all of you. We’re all going to die; but, only some are going to live.
“Although the reality of death destroys us, the idea of it can save us.” – Irv