What A Pity To Learn How To Live So Late

Chanticleer Bright Photo Oct 2014

Now that I’ve thoroughly depressed everyone with my post on Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, I’ve asked my other half to lift our spirits with a review of another book on death, Irvin Yalom’s Staring at the Sun. As hard as it may be to believe, it’s possible to find an inspiring book about death written from a secular perspective. As my husband explains, Yalom’s book encourages us to accept our inevitable end by learning how to live.

From Mr. AMB:

Irvin Yalom, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Stanford, often asks his patients: “what precisely do you fear about death?” Said one patient, “All the things I would not have done.” Yalom finds among his patients, and among numerous sources in psychiatry and philosophy, a “positive correlation between the fear of death and the sense of unlived life.”

In Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, Yalom aims to help readers identify the ways in which the fear of death has precluded them from living happy, fulfilled lives, and then face the fear down.

In my line of work,* I deal with a variety of experts — from neurosurgeons to nuclear engineers — and I often ask them, “what’s the best book in your field?” I had the occasion recently to ask a psychiatrist with 40 years of experience what he thought, and he pointed me to Existential Psychotherapy, also by Yalom. Said the psychiatrist, “it’s a wonderful mixture of philosophy, literature, and psychology,” and indeed it was. Yalom built the book around the four ultimate concerns of life — death, isolation, meaning in life, and freedom — each of which was addressed through a hefty synthesis of philosophical writings from Epicurus to Kierkegaard to Nietzsche, with heaping doses of existentialist writings from Sartre and Camus thrown in for good measure and then distilled through the pioneering work of psychotherapists like Viktor Frankl and Rollo May.

Existential Psychotherapy was published in 1980. In Staring at the Sun (long excerpt here), published in 2009, Yalom is 75 years old and confronting the approach of his own death with even greater purpose and intensity. Said Cicero, “to philosophize is to prepare for death,” and Yalom offers an unflinchingly non-religious approach to the inevitability of death, drawing heavily on Epicurus’ arguments against the fear of death.

St. Augustine wrote, “it is only in the face of death that a man’s self is born,” and nowhere is that more poignant and meaningful than in Yalom’s discussion of his work with cancer patients:

While working intensively over a ten-year period with patients facing death from cancer, I found that many of them, rather than succumb to numbing despair, were positively and dramatically transformed. They rearranged their life priorities by trivializing life’s trivia. They assumed the power to choose not to do the things that they really did not wish to do. They communicated more deeply with those they loved, and appreciated more keenly the elemental facts of life — the changing seasons, the beauty of nature, the last Christmas or New Year.

Many reported a diminishment of their fears of other people, a greater willingness to take risks, and less concern about rejection. One of my patients commented drolly that “cancer cures psychoneuroses”; another said to me, “What a pity I had to wait till now, till my body was riddled with cancer, to learn how to live!”**

Indeed, what a pity — and what a pity for any of us to wait even a moment to learn how to live.

Yalom’s primary recommendation is to take the time and attention to understand how the conscious or unconscious fear of death affects your approach to life, stare it down, and then build meaning into your life. As Yalom notes, one of Nietzsche’s favorite phrases was amor fati (“love your fate”), properly interpreted not as a recommendation to stoic acceptance of misery, but as a call to create a fate that you love.

As the writer Nikos Kazantzakis recommended, live life so fully you “Leave death nothing but a burned out castle.”


*Mr. AMB is a lawyer.

**I love this passage from Yalom’s book.

***The picture above is from Chanticleer, where my husband read this book.


  1. I’ve seen this among my friends who have had cancer over the years. I agree with the author’s assessment of why some are able to face death with a more positive attitude. I think my biggest fear is not being there for my daughter if she needs me (if I die when she’s still a child).

  2. The only thing I don’t like about death is it will stop me from writing. Otherwise, I’m not afraid of it. I hope it holds off a while, though. There are a lot of books inside me, yelling to come out.

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