Recently I came across a profound statement from a veteran psychotherapist and talented author, Irvin D. Yalom. In the preface of “Love’s Executioner,” published in 2000, he wrote how “four givens are particularly relevant to psychotherapy: the inevitability of death for each of us and for those we love; the freedom to make our lives as we will; our ultimate aloneness; and, finally, the absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life. However grim these givens may seem, they contain the seeds of wisdom and redemption.”
Yalom is a fascinating character and prolific author of both fiction and nonfiction. He’s a Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, emeritus, now in his mid-80s, known as a strong proponent of “existential psychiatry,” in the spirit of Nietzsche.
There’s certainly enough meaning in those “givens” to write a philosophical tome. In my armchair philosophical mind, I will attempt to unpack it all.
The certainty of death
Number one, “the inevitability of death for each of us and for those we love,” is certainly something that occupies our thoughts perhaps more often than any of us would like. We, of course, bury it (pardon the pun), refusing to think too deeply about our own demise or the demise of our closest friends and relatives until we personally come close to death or are witness to a loved one’s death, or we come to that dreaded point when we are lying in our own death beds.
Exercising your free will
I have been close to death on two occasions. Both times I was initially frightened and utterly distraught for a few days before feeling an unexplainable serenity that seemed to come out of nowhere. Then, when I successfully came out of those near-death experiences, I felt an extremely strong connection to Yalom’s second given: “the freedom to make our lives as we will.” Coming close to dying made me more aware of my unique self, and a catalyst for making all the stress-inducing social and business status quos suddenly vanish. I felt an enormous energy to become a self-employed entrepreneur doing what I enjoyed most and what I knew I was good at. And it came with a lot of risk, and ultimately a lot of struggle. I started to increasingly honor my authentic self and grew into becoming much less reliant on what others may or may not think about me. To this day, I am not risk averse, and I greatly admire people who are consistently taking risks to make this world a better place. They bring out their real talents and uniqueness.
Regardless of whom you might be forced to work for (self-employment transfers the boss factor to your clients/customers), the bottom line is to simply be yourself and live your life as you will, regardless of the struggle it will certainly bring. In other words, enjoy the journey.
Dealing with aloneness
The third given, “our ultimate aloneness,” is another area of life I believe I understand to a certain degree. While I enjoy a small number of friends and acquaintances and am currently happily married with children, during my twenties and thirties, I lived in a variety of studio apartments alone. There was even one short period of time, lasting about two weeks or so, when I was homeless. So, I understand, from experience, of how consistent feelings of deep aloneness brought on by extreme isolation can be dangerous to one’s overall good health and well-being. At the same time, that period of aloneness taught me how to deal with it.
Yet, Yalom, I think, is referring to the moment of truth we may feel when we are on our death beds, when we are, regardless of who may be nearby for support, totally alone. It’s easy to become existentially sad when thinking about this. And there is no balm, in my opinion, other than through religion and spirituality, to possibly lessen this sadness. It is part of life. You can deal with the cold reality of the utter finality of death through many religious and spiritual leanings (take your pick). Yalom, who is an atheist, while respectful of people who believe in the hereafter and/or reincarnation, etc., simply refers to such beliefs as our way of denying death.
My personal way of dealing with this is agnostic, with a leaning toward the supernatural. I do not know, and I feel nobody, on all sides of this particular theme – religious or atheistic – knows. Anybody who tells you they know, is only telling you what they believe. Could not knowing be the reason for our ultimate aloneness? If I knew for sure that I would someday see you on the so-called other side, would I not feel so alone? As I said, in my mind, there really is no balm other than what religion and spirituality can bring to you – and, of course, through the greatest given of them all, love.
Love, I believe, is the one factor of life that supports the notion of life after death. How can all our love for those closest to us suddenly disappear forever? That is where my leaning toward the supernatural exists, that there is something unknowable in our present physical incarnation that lives on after our body no longer pumps blood into our brains. This is a belief, not a stated fact.
Find your purpose through your journey
The last given, namely “the absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life,” is something I battle with all the time, primarily because of all the tragedy we see every day in the news. Nothing makes any sense when human suffering occurs indiscriminately, and when evil overcomes good. Why do some people suffer so dramatically when others live mostly comfortable, unhampered lives? Some philosophers say bad depends on the existence of good, and vice versa. When there is a horrendous hurricane beating down your neck (bad), your neighbor will be there to help pull you out of the dastardly winds and flood waters (good). Or, handling adversity and tragedy through strength makes you a better person. That kind of thinking doesn’t help, in my opinion. Fuck tragedy. The only way of dealing with the fickle nature of tragedy, I think, is to sympathize with its victims, honor it, be humbled by it, and always try to do the right thing by supporting those who are less fortunate than you are – the benefit of which most always comes in the form of meaning and purpose for the one perpetrating support. However, to say that bad times make the good times better does not bring peace of mind. I don’t see the value in suffering. I see it as suffering, period. Suffering is not a prerequisite for growing and learning. Wisdom can be achieved without suffering, by simply paying attention to your journey with a strong critical mind that honestly seeks understanding.
We are all different in our pathways toward wisdom. How you handle these givens throughout life certainly helps to explain what kind of person you become.