We all ask ourselves those scary questions in life at one point or another. This book might just be a helpful place to start.
I think about death every day. I’m not sure at exactly what point it started – it’s just been on my mind more and more as life seems to accelerate. I do my best to not have regrets, and for the most part, I don’t. Whatever the case I will certainly say that this book – which deals with the theme of death as well as other existential conundrums – was a timely read and an excellent recommendation from my friend Mike.*
The full title is Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy. It’s a collection of true “tales,” or stories of ten patients whom the therapist and author (Yalom) struggles to help through their existential issues, sometimes with heartening success, other times with disappointment. While captivating and at times extremely personal, you never get the sense these stories are shared for a gratuitous sense of entertainment. In spite of the frank and accessible writing style, they hit upon some of the most fundamental problems of existence…in other words, the kind of things you end always end up thinking about if you’re alone too long. Like death, for instance.
“What exactly it is about this book that stands out to you – how would you sum up what makes this book worth reading?”
I asked Mike, who lives some 13 hours away from me on the US East Coast, this question via Facebook messenger last week. We had already discussed Love’s Executioner for an hour on Skype – but in our excitement chasing all the various issues and segues inevitable in a book discussion, I had not yet gotten his “bottom line” on the book.
“The science of psychology has a unique way of reducing everyone to a few neurons firing off in the brain. I don’t agree with that. I love this book for at least bringing people to light. Also, Yalom asks us to be human, to have emotion – to live as you see fit. When I read it ages ago I was going through some major things and this book here was telling me to go and do as I see fit.”
These were Mike’s own words. He went on reveal that he first read Love’s Executioner while an undergrad in college and suffering from life with two dysfunctional and abusive parents. It was this book (along with, paradoxically enough, the Book of Mormon) that helped him pull his life together and make sense of it all. I definitely agree that one of Love’s Executioner’s strongest points is that the characters and their existential struggles are described in a relatable way – no technical mumbo-jumbo or condescending pedantry here. The writing is fresh and honest.
The author, Yalom – or rather “Irv,” as both Mike and I affectionately like to call him – is a successful therapist and a skeptical yet optimistic individual who champions the old Socratic axiom, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
In his prologue he identifies “four problems of existence” that plague people at one point or another. These four “problems” are as follows: 1) the inevitability of death 2) the freedom to act; in other words, contingency – life is only what you make of it. 3) our ultimate aloneness in the world – we are born alone and die alone, and 4) the absence of any obvious meaning or purpose in life.
Right here many people might protest that such deep and disturbing concepts do not bother or them or they do not believe in them. Irv goes on to show in these ten stories of his remarkably different patients how each of us are at some point affected by these existential problems, and must face them – in whatever form and way they may come to us. He illustrates how different people find ways to fight or cope with the idea of their own humanity, whether it’s denial, refusal to live in the present, refusal to think about the future, or simply thinking of oneself as “special” and exempt from “the rules.” In reading these stories I was surprised by how much I could relate.
The first tale in this series is the one the book takes its title from: “Love’s Executioner.” Here is Yalom’s introductory paragraph:
I do not like to work with patients who are in love. Perhaps it is because of envy – I, too, crave enchantment. Perhaps it is because love and psychotherapy are fundamentally incompatible. The good therapist fights darkness and seeks illumination, while romantic love is sustained by mystery and crumbles upon inspection. I hate to be love’s executioner.
The “love” in question is that of 70-something-year-old patient Thelma for a former therapist 35 years her junior – unrequited, no less. Irv is both disturbed by Thelma’s obsession and determined to help Thelma “see the light.” No matter how hard he tries, however, Thelma remains stubborn and threatens suicide. At last, Irv feels compelled to bring in the former therapist and ex-lover himself to attain a reconciliation with Thelma and end to her delusions, but the meeting between the three of them produces an astounding new revelation that neither Irv nor the reader are prepared for. (Hint: be careful before you decide who the real “victim” of a love obsession is!)
As crazy and pathetic as Thelma’s story is, I would be a fool to not recognize my own former “love delusions” and the “mystery” and “enchantment” that fed them before they, too, finally crumbled. For several years, actually, I was stuck in a love obsession of sorts that literally kept me stagnate and unresponsive to anyone new. Only after years of reflection and sensible insight from others did I finally realize the person I was in love with didn’t really exist – just as in Thelma’s case. Thelma, in her love obsession is defying death – she wants to feel young again, the way she felt when she was with her lover. While I myself am not in my 70’s (yet) I realize that intense romantic love can carry with it this powerful notion of death defiance – this notion that our lovers and we will remain in the same ideal state forever, united in a comforting “we,” rather than left to figure out our identity alone. This is just one of many of Irv’s interesting examples of how people subconsciously avoid the problems of “ordinariness” and “death” – or at the very least, self-awareness.
Along a somewhat similar vein, sexual conquest and sexual activity are other ways to defy death: Irv explores this in “If Rape were Legal,” a story about a cancer patient who can’t stop trying to get laid, as well as in “In Search of the Dreamer,” a rather different scenario about a happily-married 64-year-old man who becomes distraught at the onset of impotence and retirement. It might sound all too Freudian at first, but the author’s strength is that he is drawing his conclusions from conversations and experiences with real and sympathetic people, rather than abstract theory. (It also makes for far more interesting reading than any textbook).
Sex is certainly not the only relevant topic, though. In “Fat Lady” and “3 Unopened Letters,” we get the stories of two people who are deeply troubled by the problem of “freedom” and creating their own destiny, rather than letting someone else make their choices and determine destiny for them. Betty the “Fat Lady” blames external circumstances and other people for her weight problems and loneliness. Saul, a neurotic science professor is terrified by three unopened letters and refuses to take control by opening them up and facing the contents inside (which are ironically no where near as terrifying as he assumes them to be).
It may seem counterintuitive to think of freedom as a negative thing. But Irv reveals in these stories just how scary the reality can be that only oneself is in control – that no one else is writing the story of our lives, or responsible for creating a happy outcome. If something goes “wrong,” we have only ourselves to blame. In Irv’s words:
Freedom from an existential perspective is bonded to anxiety in asserting that, contrary to everyday experience, we do not enter into, and ultimately leave, a well-structured universe with an eternal grand design. Freedom means that one is responsible for one’s own choices, actions, and one’s own life situation.
Perhaps the most striking tale in the entire collection is the short but aptly titled “I Never Thought It Would Happen to Me.” In this story recently widowed Elva has a bout of depression when she is robbed outside a restaurant. This incident destroys her illusion of “specialness,” the notion that she is immune to the bad and nasty things in life that so many other people are subject to. After the incident, Elva becomes paranoid and frightened of death or other catastrophic things happening to her. Perhaps this story was striking to me because it hit the closest to home: in my own privileged and happy life I have sometimes felt protected by a sort of divine favor or karma. While I am a person of faith, I am logically aware that I’m still subject to the same impersonal dictates of the universe that everyone else is. There is no guarantee that I will not die in a plane crash next summer, or of cancer within the next ten years. I certainly hope not. But realizing the possibility has caused me some disturbing mental rumblings of my own, and I cannot help but think this concept of “specialness,” while an illusion, must be one with a sort of mentally self-preserving effect.
Irv fancies himself not only Love’s Executioner, but also the executioner of all things “illusionary” and false, however comforting or addictive they may otherwise be. His lofty ambition is somewhat redeemed by a sense of limitation:
I believe that, though illusion often cheers and comforts, it ultimately and invariably weakens and constricts the spirit.
But there is timing and judgment. Never take away anything if you have nothing better to offer. Beware of stripping a patient who can’t bear the chill of reality. And don’t exhaust yourself by jousting with religious magic; you’re no match for it. The thirst for religion is too strong, its roots too deep, its cultural reinforcement too powerful.
Here is perhaps Irv’s biggest flaw, though an understandable one: in his quest to question everything he comes to realize that even his own reserved worldview has some holes in it. After all, there is a reason why people are attracted to ideas and beliefs beyond what they can prove or sense directly. And while such ideas and “illusion” can easily be taken to an extreme (as is the case with the stories of his ten patients), there is obviously something universally powerful in them. This is why, even now as a sometimes-skeptical 28-year-old I still cannot believe there is truly no purpose or meaning in life other than what we make of it. Until Irv Yalom – or anyone else – has something “better to offer” I will continue to live and believe in a universe that has purpose and stick to my religion that has demonstrably yielded happy results and at times a profound sense of peace. If Irv or any other agnostic intellectual wants to boil that down to “cultural reinforcement,” I won’t try to stop them.
Mike is religious, too – like me, he also cheerfully begs to differ from Irv on the same points, in spite of some of the lousy and unfair things he has had to experience and try to recover from. But perhaps unlike some other religious people who might feel threatened (understandably) by Irv’s blunt and assuming statements about ultimate reality we both still found this read to be insightful even fascinating. I have decided that what may not come into complete harmony with your beliefs will test them to either demolish them or make them stronger and have better perspective. No matter what your own personal beliefs are concerning God or an afterlife (or lack thereof) you can glean pearls of wisdom from “Love’s Executioner.” Mike and I certainly will certainly have a lot to talk about for a while to come.
* = Mike’s name has been changed