Star­ing at the Sun: Over­com­ing the Ter­ror of Death

Irvin D. Yalom
  • Review
By – March 5, 2012

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.

Steven A. Luel, Ph.D., is asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of edu­ca­tion and psy­chol­o­gy at Touro Col­lege, New York. He is a devel­op­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist and psy­cho­an­a­lyst in pri­vate prac­tice. He is co-edi­tor (with Paul Mar­cus) of Psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic Reflec­tions on the Holo­caust: Select­ed Essays.

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