Irvin D. Yalom has been the leading exponent of existential psychology for over forty years. In his classic clinical works and numerous novels he has shared the essential tenets of existential psychotherapy in a compelling manner. He also remains one of the most effective campaigners against the deplorable effects of managed care and superficial short term treatments.
In his latest volume, Staring at the Sun, Yalom turns to the core of the existentialist‘ s life : the confrontation with one’s mortality. Yalom has long held that mainstream psychology and psychiatry have given scant attention to the place of death as the central organizer of human psychological functioning. Yalom seeks to provide a manual of sorts for anyone seeking relief from the fear generated by contemplation of one’s eventual demise.
All the major remedies put forth by the existentialists are reviewed through clinical vignettes and Yalom’s personal reflections. As in all his writings, hope lies in authentic living and loving, meaning, altruism, deep connections, and a lifetime of immersion in art, music, literature, and nature. A keen appreciation of the blessedness of everyday life comes from death awareness. Although painful and frightening, Yalom maintains that death awareness, and even periodic waves of death anxiety, if prompting self- reflection and change, can add immeasurably to the quality of one’s life.
It remains an open question if severe death anxiety, and particularly the death panic Yalom and his patients describe are in fact variants of panic disorder. Should the fear and trembling, the recurrent disrupted sleep, the dread and “ego chill” be treated with medication as one does panic disorder? With psychoanalytic or cognitive approaches? With limiting talk and thought about death and paying attention to life as Skinner advocated in his final work on old age ?
Yalom, in this highly recommended and courageous work, leaves these important questions unanswered. And, for those who view death as a non-terminal event, there will be little of solace offered as Yalom is firmly anchored in a post-metaphysical world. Index, notes, reader’s guide.