Staring at the Sun

A few days ago, I went to see the eminent psychiatrist and writer Dr Irvin Yalom, hosted by The School of Life. Though given that Dr Yalom is 86 and no longer travels outside the USA, the interview was conducted by live video feed.

I first came across his work when someone lent me his book Staring at the Sun, a book about fear of dying. While it didn’t exactly quell my fear of non-existence, it did include some comforting little vignettes such as this one from a terminally ill woman in one of his therapy groups: “It’s a pitch black night. I’m alone in my boat floating in the harbour. I see the lights of many other boats. I know I can’t reach them, can’t join with them. But how comforting it is to see all those other lights bobbing in the harbour.”

That’s probably why I picked up his recently-published memoir Becoming Myself. It sure was a beautiful read. And maybe that’s also why I was so keen to catch a glimpse of his beard and hat in pixelated person… and hear his bi-coastal Jewish lilt bring his anecdotes to life.

If I’m going to be picky, I’d say that the interview itself didn’t exactly work. Maybe John Armstrong wasn’t the best choice of interviewer, or maybe Dr Yalom hadn’t been briefed all that extensively. The sound in Dr Yalom’s office in Palo Alto, California certainly seemed to be a bit spotty as he often requested that his assistant adjust the feedback, usually needed things repeated and sometimes missed them completely. Or maybe he was just so used to lecturing vast groups of therapists and/or regaling rapt audiences at writers festivals and book launches that he stuck to set pieces.

Either way, he didn’t take up Armstrong’s various offers to ponder how some of the key learnings from his books could help the “general reader” live a braver, more empathic life. Which was a bit of shame, given that’s pretty much The School of Life’s raison d’être.

But I’d be surprised if anyone who attended said they left empty-handed. Dr Yalom was warm and wise and very accessible. He reminded us of the value in pursuing a regret-free life and also that a life of service would have a positive ripple effect on future generations.

For me, two of his observations really stood out. The first was that, in working with bereaved spouses in group therapy, he’d noticed a strong correlation between the state of the marriage and the way the remaining partner moved through their grief. From what he had observed, someone who had lost their significant other could be expected to grieve severely for about a year, especially through key occasions and milestones. But then, if the relationship had been a healthy and happy one, the grief would transform into something more bearable soon after that year had passed.

If, however, the relationship was troubled then the remaining partner would grieve harder for a lot longer. Because not only were they dealing with the end of the relationship and the loss of their spouse; they were grieving for themselves. This, he commented, was hard work and best undertaken with the support of a trusted mental health professional.

I felt like this was an astute observation for the end of any relationship, be it with a person, a job, a project, a dream, one’s self or the end of an era.

The second thing he said that really struck me was in relation to his mother. He recalled very clearly the first time, as an adult, he was truly able to feel empathy for her. This, he said, brought an avalanche of grief and regret… which, in turn, enabled him to forgive her. He’d always known that her life as an immigrant and  shop owner in Washington DC had been relentlessly poverty-stricken and frightening. She was not a generous or loving parent in his estimation. But in the moment when we truly saw her, he realised: “She just didn’t have it to give.” 

When I look back on my own life, I see how there is so much room for compassion and empathy for all those who did and do not have it to give. Although I can wholeheartedly say my life has been characterised by love, safety, generosity and abundance… it feels so poignant that these were the two observations that struck me at this juncture in my life.

So much is ending and the grief sometimes feels overwhelming. I am yet to see clearly the health of my relationship to these things. And at the same time, the new beginnings are so fledgling, I can barely feel my way into them.

I see how many ways I do not myself have it to give right now, especially to my children. All I can hope is that I have imbued them with the gift of empathy… so that one day they might lean in and see me truly now in all my flawed glory.