This June in Paris, I had the chance to spend quality time with a dear friend. In typical French fashion she somehow made us a delicious meal with almost no ingredients. She put it together while we chatted and within an hour we enjoyed her creation.
Chatting on her couch after eating she said, "I've read something this year that was more powerful than anything I have read for a very long time. You must read it."
She ran into her room, returned back and shoved this book (photographed) into my hands.
"Have you heard of him?" She asked. Disappointed that I had not.
We both have done extensive coaching training and tend to be up on "books that blow your mind." Irvin Yalom is an existential psychiatrist who worked with patients and taught for years at Stanford University
What is Existential Psychiatry? Why does it matter?
For folks who are atheist, agnostic, or just do not want to talk about spirituality, existential psychiatry offers a way to talk about the biggest conundrums of being human without involving heaven, hell, Jesus, or any other concept that requires a leap of faith.
Epicurus says, " You're Really Just Scared of Death "
Yalom worked with patients using reason--and when it came to death he talked to his patients a lot about Epicurus. Now, we tend to think of dear Epicurus as our Greek father of food, but he was far more interested in writing about death.
He did not believe the soul transcended death -- the upside is that if the soul did not go on, then one could not be punished. So no need to worry.
He thought-- as did Yalom working with his patients -- that much (maybe most) human anxiety stems from a fear of dying.
Epicurus says, "Stop Freaking Out About Death, Enjoy Yourself!"
Epicurus and Dr. Yalom think if we could relax about dying, we could live much richer and fuller lives.
Dr. Yalom turned into therapy what Epicurus touted as philosophy.
Now in terms of enjoyment Epicurus wasn't into our favorites-- he was doubtful about the benefits of sex or politics. He probably was a fan of food...hence his culinary fame.
Rationally Talk Yourself Out of Panic
Yalom's book Staring at the Sun, shares vignettes of how he talked his patients through their unconcious fears of death. It's like getting free therapy-- they'll be someone in the book that sounds sort of like you. I did not think I was scared of death -- but his rational explanation about why one should release any fear felt freeing.
Sharing Death with Strangers
I could not put the book down; I read the entire thing on my flight from Paris to Washington DC. The man next to me - Gavin - saw me so lit up he said, "I have to know what you're reading." So I told him about the book and we started talking about death, life, loss, etc.
"Are you afraid of dying" Gavin asked me.
"No," I said, "I'm afraid of everyone I love dying. I don't want to be left here without them."
He nodded in agreement.
After an hour of talking I said, "Let me go back to the book so I can give it to you when we land"
I handed it to him at baggage claim and said, "if not for you it will help you comfort someone dealing with loss."
Somehow, without God, spirit or soul, Yalom and Epicurus make death not so scary. It's so without mysticism, it's ironically like magic.
For the More Spiritual
I'm more spiritual than Yalom, though my undergraduate major is philosophy (intellectual history- to be specific) so I appreciate the beauty of the argument.
It's warm and brilliant. If you want a more spiritual approach to death, have the courage to pick up Many Lives, Many Masters by Columbia trained psychiatrist Dr. Brian Weiss. His books will blow your hair back (if you have any) too. A totally different frame; they contradict each other yet I love them both and find they both "work."
I agree with Weiss and Yalom and Epicurus that we live better lives if we are not so worried about the end or about what happens to those we love. Grab a lemonade, sit in a comfy chair, and hold on to your hat...either of these books will change your life-- for the better.
Sarah Federman, PhD
Enjoy these short blogs and videos designed to bring you a little cheer.
My other blog Language of Conflict addresses the importance of word choice and narration in conflict.
Finish and Flourish supports writers struggling to complete projects.