I have just finished reading Staring at the Sun by Irvin Yalom, a remarkable book about facing and overcoming our fear of death. Not the most promising of subjects, you might think, for a light-hearted read but I found it hugely inspiring and life-affirming.
Yalom urges us to defy la Rochefoucauld’s maxim: Le soleil ni la mort ne se peuvent regarder en face (You cannot stare straight into the face of the sun, or death). Staring at the sun will blind you but looking death in the eye can help you live a more joyful and fulfilled life, he argues.
Drawing on poetry, philosophy, literature, therapeutic case studies and his own long experience (he was 75 when the book was published) Yalom shows us how our existential fear of non-being can rob us of our vitality and willingness to live fully and he quotes a colleague of Freud, Otto Rank: Some refuse the loan of life to avoid the debt of death.
Yalom is a secularist. He does not offer the comfort of belief in reincarnation or life after death to soften the blow. Instead he urges us to use the awareness of death to help us become who we are; to savour our lives: The way to value life, the way to feel compassion for others, the way to love anything with the greatest depth is to be aware that these experiences are destined to be lost.
There is an old Zen story that I sometimes tell to myself when I want to remember this. It begins with a man walking alone across a field:
As he walked he heard a roar behind him. He looked round and saw a tiger bounding towards him. He ran way as fast as he could, the tiger at his heels. Suddenly he came to the edge of a cliff. With nowhere else to run, he grabbed hold of a vine and swung himself over the edge. Hanging there he looked up to see the tiger drooling above him. Terrified, he looked down, only to see another tiger waiting for him below. Two mice – one white and one black – started gnawing at the vine that was holding him. In that moment, the man saw a wild strawberry growing out of the cliff face nearby. Holding on to the vine with one hand he reached out and plucked it. How sweet the strawberry tasted!
As for changing how we live – seizing our ‘one wild and precious life’ – Yalom leaves us with a heartening message: It’s never too late. You’re never too old.