Irvin Yalom on minimizing existential depression


I’ve been suffering from waxing and waning episodes of existential depression and death anxiety since I was a child in a dysfunctional home.  I overheard the news a lot and was in constant fear of WWIII.   It probably did not help that I visited Auschwitz on a trip to Poland I took with my grandmother when I was 10, a fascinating but frightening experience.

I have found Irvin Yalom’s Staring at the Sun – Overcoming the Terror of Death to be a real comfort to me when I am struggling with life, self-worth, relationships, and meaning.

Many times since about the 8th grade (when I moved three times and was bullied in each school), my soul felt so very weary and death seemed a comforting embrace.  Other times, I felt death anxiety and existential depression to ride high because there was no one else who was acutely aware of the things I was (the disconnection from each other, the selfish pursuits of money, possessions and power, the hypocrisy all around me, the general disrespect for human life) and I had no one to help me sort out my worries and concerns and no one to tell me I would be all right.

In spite of my anxiety and confusion, I have had what many people could consider a successful life.  A twelve year career in the biotech field, three beautiful and gifted daughters, a husband who is mostly supportive but struggles with his own demons.

But when I began to start my own family, I began to fear death anew.  I began to fear that I will be taken from them too soon.   I would periodically have panic attacks regarding my death.   Sometimes something in particular would trigger it – like finding out a few people in my life were diagnosed with cancer.  And sometimes nothing in particular would trigger panic attacks.  I’d been sent into the urgent care and the ER on two separate occasions, certain I inherited my grandfather’s heart condition.

I don’t want to die, and yet I still have had times when the feelings of failure and weary spirit return and life just becomes incredibly hard to bear. Having no one in real life to talk to about this makes it incredibly difficult at times. This isn’t a topic most people feel comfortable talking about. It would make them extremely uncomfortable and they would swiftly shut the door on any kind of fruitful discussion.

I needed to have something I could refer to whenever I needed it, like those wee hours of the morning when I can’t sleep, when death anxiety most threatens to consume my peace of mind. I went through a period of spiritual confusion as I shed some of my old beliefs and started to explore new spiritual paths.

When I read a book review of Staring at the Sun, I knew I had to have a copy for my personal library.

Here is an excerpt from a book review at the blog Sunset’s Light:

Irvin Yalom, M.D. (Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry, Stanford University School of Medicine) has authored a dozen books, including the classic textbook Existential Psychotherapy. Yalom has also written the best-selling and widely-translated novel, When Nietzsche Wept. Writing across genres, Yalom maintains a consistent clarity, warmth and compassion. In Staring at the Sun, Yalom presents an intimate memoir and manual for transitioning into death. Combining erudite insight with spell-binding storytelling, Yalom shows how he, his patients and others have transmuted their awareness of death into a vital force for fulfilling and consummating their lives. Yalom demonstrates how — whether believer or atheist — we can fulfill of our lives and leave traces of “immortality” – or “rippling” as he calls it – by how we positively affect others.~ H. Talat Halman

Assistant Professor, Religion

Central Michigan University

From Chapter 1 – something caught my attention right off the bat:

Epicurus was a Greek Philosopher born in 341 B.C.E, shortly after the death of Plato. Many people thought he merely advocated sensuous pleasures. He, in fact, did not. His primary goal was the attainment of tranquility (ataxaria). He practiced “medical philosophy” – just as the doctor treats the body, the philosopher must treat the soul.

There was only one proper goal of philosophy in his mind – “to alleviate human misery”. The primary source of human misery in his mind – the omnipresent fear of death.  The vision of death permeates our lives and leaves no pleasure undisturbed.

I’m very grateful to Irvin Yalom for addressing these existential concerns and death anxiety in a very compassionate way.  And he examines the shortcomings of religion in alleviating death anxiety:

Death anxiety is the mother of all religions, which, in one way or another, attempt to temper the anguish of our finitude. God, as formulated transculturally, not only softens the pain of mortality through some vision of everlasting life, but also palliates fearful isolation by offering and external presence, and provides a clear blueprint for living a meaningful life. But despite the staunchest, most venerable defenses, we can never completely subdue death anxiety.~ Yalom, p 5.

But in his empathetic book, he does offer wisdom and guidance through the idea of synergy and several thought experiments (from Epicureus and Nietzsche) that help manage death anxiety when fear looms high.

Though the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us.~Yalom, p. 7

It is the synergy of ideas and human connection that is our most powerful aid in staring down death.~ Yalom, p. 7

…confronting death allows us, not to open some noisome Pandora’s box, but to reenter life in a richer, more compassionate manner.~Yalom, p. 9

An acute awareness of death certainly helps us prioritize our lives so that we don’t waste time and energy on trivial activities or in soul-crushing jobs or with people who do not edify us.

I was excited and comforted by this book (and a lot of other writings from Yalom). The idea of synergy came to me a few times these past few years when I was enchanted by the ideas of a few introspective and articulate minds. As while it has been rare to find this in real life, I have found such synergy through some wonderful internet sources of friendship and fellowship (both through message boards and my private blogs).  Their ideas inspired me and catalyzed personal growth and it is such a wonderful feeling. I very much need and appreciate the synergy created when I exchange insights with spiritual, intellectual and sensitive others. It’s magical to have that feeling of exuberant connection and I feel I have made positive impact on the lives of other people.  That feeling does relieve my feelings of existential depression.

I am sure the feelings of death anxiety will return at some point.  But I am better prepared for it now.  I know I take comfort in Yalom’s writings and in other literature that I’ve come across.  When I can’t find rest in the wee hours of the morning, I have access to a compassionate counselor in Yalom’s writings, whenever I need it.

About Casey

“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ ~ Jack Kerouac, On The Road Again
This entry was posted in essays, existential depression, Irvin Yalom, Staring at the Sun. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Irvin Yalom on minimizing existential depression

  1. Lisa says:

    I have recently fallen in love with the work of Irvin Yalom, so what a thrill to find this post of yours, Casey. I have no doubt that you are “leaving traces in the hearts of others,” and I look forward to following this new blog. Happy New Year to you and your family.
    ~ Lisa

  2. Lisa –

    I’m so glad you found Irvin Yalom. He repeats a lot of his core ideas throughout his books, but sometimes I need that.

    I absolutely love his novel When Nietzsche Wept. There’s a great review of it here:

    One of these days I’m going to write my own review of it too.

    Happy New Year to you and your family as well.


  3. Pingback: Leaving ripples | The Sprightly Writer

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