Someone throw me a stick

When Irvin Yalom heard from Dr Richard Harding that the committee on psychiatry and religion of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) would award him with the Oscar Pfister Prize, the now famous psychiatrist and writer was thrilled, albeit somewhat surprised: «Religion? Me? There must be some mistake. Are you sure? You know I regard myself as a practicing atheist?» Dr Harding graciously comforted him: «We believe that you’ve dedicated yourself to religious questions.» Dr Harding’s response touched upon a profound yet often neglected truth – that there are family resemblances between existential psychotherapy and religious consolation. «In a sense, they are cousins with the same ancestors and concerns: They share the common mission of ministering to the intrinsic despair of the human condition,» says Yalom in «Religion and Psychiatry,» his latest work to be published in Greek – a book that is basically a version of the acceptance speech he delivered at the annual meeting of the APA in New Orleans in May 2000. Although religion and psychotherapy share the same ends, or rather derive from the same concerns, rarely do they employ the same means. Both spring from and, simultaneously, aim to assuage existence anxiety generated by the apparent emptiness of the world, he says. Both aim to help man in his encounter with what Albert Camus so wonderfully captures in his notion of the «absurd» – the abysmal gap between man’s will for rationality, immortality and purpose in life, on one hand, and the world’s inherent irrationality, finiteness and futility, on the other. «We humans appear to be meaning-seeking creatures that have the misfortune to be thrown into a world devoid of intrinsic meaning. One of our major life tasks is to invent a purpose in life sturdy enough to support a life.» The author recalls a passage from the memoirs of the psychoanalyst Alan Wheelis where the man describes his envy of Monty, his dog, because the animal actually experiences the complacency of having an assignment-in-life – such as fetching a stick thrown by his master. «Who among us has not had the wish: ‘If only someone would throw me a stick’,» ponders Yalom. A very old and popular antidote to the Camusian absurd is religion. The divine seems a popular refuge, so popular that the omnipresence of religious belief through the ages has been taken as confirmation of God’s existence. Rather, Yalom says, «the reason that religious belief is ubiquitous is that existence-anxiety is ubiquitous. Rather than being created by gods, it seems obvious that we create gods for our own comfort.» Likewise, we create them in our own image. In the words of Xenophanes, a pre-Socratic thinker quoted by Yalom, «If lions could think, their gods would have a mane and roar.» Religions offer believers consolation by denying the finality of death, promising them a place in the heavens. The problem, Yalom says, is that the promise of the afterlife is an empty promise. And here lies the erroneousness of religion’s methods. It’s this promise, which is to be found in all religious dogmas, that prevents humans from enjoying their life to the maximum. To live life fully, Yalom believes, one must accept that it ends. People would be more creative and happier if they had greater awareness of their own finiteness – a reality that religious otherworldliness tries to overcome. It is in this sense that the confrontation with death can be a useful tool, something like a wake-up call. People suffering from fatal illnesses often experience this bittersweet sensation. Yalom recalls a patient’s lament: «What a pity I had to wait for wisdom until now, till my body was riddled with cancer.» «Though the physicality of death destroys us,» he says, «the idea of death can save us.» The challenge for therapists like himself, Yalom maintains, is to bring about change in their patients’ world views, even cure existential despair, by utilizing more subtle boundary experiences, so to speak: retirement, aging body, children leaving home, the death of a close relative. «Our existence,» Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his autobiography, «is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.» Yalom would agree. But he does not see this as a cause for despair. The absurdity of the human condition should not be allowed to become an unbearable burden. Yalom follows Nietzsche’s life-celebratory urge: «Amor fati!» Love your fate. Besides, says Yalom, experience has taught him that the intensity of one’s death anxiety depends on the amount of one’s «unlived life:» «Those individuals who feel they have lived their lives richly, have fulfilled their potential and their destiny, experience less panic in the face of death.» Not surprisingly, at the end of the book, Yalom invokes the life-advice given by Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis: «Leave nothing for death but a burned-out castle.» Irvin Yalom’s «Religion and Psychiatry» (48 pages) is now available from Agra Publications.