Thursday, January 17, 2008

Staring at the Sun: Book Review by ChristineMM

Title: Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death
Author: Irvin D. Yalom
Publication Date: February 2008
Publisher: Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780787996680
Genre: Psychology/Self-Help
Full retail price: $24.95

Rating: 4 stars

Summary: Interesting Ideas; From a Secular Humanist Viewpoint



How and Why I read this book: This was an offering in the Amazon Vine program which I am a participant in. I received a free advanced reading copy of this book in order to read and review it for Amazon.com. I received no payment for doing that but if you buy this book (or any other item) through the Amazon links on my blog I do receive a small commission.

I am a layperson interested in how our society confronts their fear of death, how people react and adjust to their dying friends and relatives, and how after the passing of loved ones, people are affected. In this last year I have had numerous life experiences that qualified as ‘awakening’ experiences and I was curious to read about this topic of death and how we react to it, including fear and terror of death.

I feel that our American culture is lacking information and support about how people are to react to the dying. Little is written of what life is like for a frail, elderly person, our society is ignorant about the dying process. Not much is said about how the healthy people can and should act or help those who are dying and how to handle mourning. I have seen all different reactions amongst family and friends regarding how they react and live around the dying and how they act and think after the loved one does pass on.

Dr. Yalom, a psychiatrist, has written a book about overcoming the terror of death. I’m not afraid of death itself. I read the book because I hoped it would be of some benefit or use to me. Some of it was useful and some of it was not. How his book affects the reader will vary depending on the uniqueness of each person and probably also will depend on their religious beliefs or lack thereof and how they jive with what Dr. Yalom’s belief system.

Using the philosophies of famous philosophers and their ideas of creation and what happens to our body and soul after death, Yalom has constructed a way that he thinks is right and best for us to think about our eventual death and how we react to the death of loved ones. He provides us with a foundation of having a certain idea about how we should go about living while we are alive and well. One glitch is that in order to accept and use these ideas we have to agree on some foundational beliefs which Yalom explains in the book.

Mixed in with all of this are discussions of how today’s therapists usually counsel their patients versus his method, which combines an existential philosophy. We learn of how Sigmund Freud’s teachings have shaped and influenced today’s therapists. Dr. Yalom feels that many of the problems in people’s lives are actually based in having a fear of death; some people know that and others don’t realize that a death terror is the basis of problems in their lives.

Dr. Yalom wrote this book in language that a layperson can understand in the hopes that laypeople will read it as a self-help book and that they can use his ideas to go about living a better life and to rid themselves of some or all of their fear of death.

Dr. Yalom wishes more therapists and doctors would be more aware of the existence of death terror and he hopes they will read this book also. There is one chapter addressed specifically to therapists about how they might include these ideas in their practice. That chapter includes detailed information about how dreams can be the way a person’s mind expresses death terror. He feels that therapists can use dream interpretation in their practice as a clue to revealing a hidden death terror, then they can begin work on addressing their death terror to solve the root cause of the patient’s problem which then resolves the more obvious day to day problems happening in their lives, which are probably the reason the person came to therapy in the first place. I loved the idea of solving the root of the problem.

I didn’t expect this book to include so many references to the ideas of famous philosophers. I found it very interesting to the point where I would like more information and I plan to follow-up by reading some of the writings of these philosophers. (Previously I was not only afraid to read what philosophers said as I thought they may be too complex or not-understandable, but didn’t know why I should bother.) I appreciated the encouragement to read the original writings of Schopenhauer, in fact, one thing that disappointed me was that Dr. Yalom didn’t explore in more detail (such as an devoting an entire chapter to) Schopenhauer’s triplet of essays. Much was written about Nietzsche and I am intrigued and plan to read his original writings also.

A problem that some readers will have with the advice in the book will be if a reader’s spiritual and religious beliefs are different, then the basic model of how to use the advice in the book will not apply 100%. Some readers, if they knew these things in advance, would never buy or read the book, especially those who seek to avoid the secular humanist view.

To be specific, Yalom makes it clear that he has never believed in a God, ever. Raised in a home where his parents practiced Judaism, he says he never believed in any kind of God, even in his childhood. He lays out a way of thinking that to me is in line only with secular humanism. His belief system includes the idea that we come from nothing, are born with a soul and a physical body and when we die, both our soul and body dies completely and we return to a black hole of nothingness, permanently. The idea is that if we feel nothing after death and are completely gone and dead then we should not fear that death, nor will we even be able to feel regret for having not done everything we had hoped we do in our living days.

While he is not too insulting about people’s beliefs in other things he makes it clear on page 245 is that His “bete noir is bizarre belief: aura therapy, semi-defied gurus; hands-on healers; prophets; untested healing claims of various nutritionalists; aroma therapy, homeopathy, and zany ideas about such things as astral traveling, healing powers of crystals, religious miracles, angels, feng shui, channeling, remote viewing, meditational levitation, psychokinesis, poltergeists, past lives therapy and UFOs and extrerrestrials who inspired early civilizations, designed patterns in wheat fields, and built the Egyptian pyramids.” He continues, “Still I’ve always believed that I could put all prejudices aside and work with anyone regardless of his or her belief systems.” An issue is that some who believe in the aforementioned things, even Catholics who believe in miracles, may take such an affront to his outlook that they will close their minds to what Dr. Yalom has to say or they may choose to not read a single word of the book.

My feeling is that while some of Yalom’s ideas can be worked into belief systems such as the various types of Christianity, not all of them will completely jive, especially the idea that there is no Heaven and that the soul dies after birth. Other religions are also incompatible, anything that encompasses reincarnation or the idea that the soul continues to live on after the body perishes, such as the religions of Buddhism or Hinduism

This book will be the best fit as a self-help book for agnostics or Atheists. It may also be accepted easily by those who have not developed any spiritual beliefs yet who would not have any conflicts (and in fact, if while reading this book if they liked what it said they would be accepting a secular humanist belief without possibly even realizing it).

One last thing I’ll share about what I learned is that I am surprised to learn that modern therapists including psychiatrists (medical doctors) are, according to Dr. Yalom, in denial about the reality that in their daily life people are affected by a fear of death or have been affected by experiencing the death of people they care about. I don’t know a lot about the field of psychotherapy (I’ve never been in counseling or been through psychotherapy) but after reading this book, the field has lost some credibility with me. Basing so many theories on Freud and his denial of the reality of people being affected by death is scary.

I also hadn’t realized that the professional care and medical treatment given by psychiatrists would overlap into religious realms. I have a new concern that medical insurance companies are paying for treatments and therapies of what really is counseling that overlaps with religion especially if the therapists are pushing an Atheist worldview on their patients. I now can see why religious people would avoid these types of counselors and seek instead, counseling and advice from their pastors, preachers and priests.

I found the book interesting and food for thought. I am glad I read it as it addresses topics that I feel are not written about much today. Additionally, the book had me thinking and pondering and any book that covers seldom written about topics and makes me think automatically earns 4 stars from me.



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1 comment:

paul said...

the clarity and openness of this review was refreshing and informative.
i am encouraged to read philosophers in their original writing, by your comment.