Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom, 1989
Published by Penguin Books
First line: “Imagine this scene: three to four hundred people, strangers to each other, are told to pair up and ask their partner one single question, ‘What do you want?’ over and over and over again.”
Book Rx: For those soul-searching moments in your quarter-life/midlife crises. When you’re worried. Or when you’ve just about given up.
I don’t like ‘self-helpy’ books. Books of the ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ variety, whose covers are all block font without any pictures, books that claim to have the “secret” to helping its readers achieve success/live positively/boost their self esteem/etc etc. I’m sure there are gems out there in the self-help section, but most strike me as compilations of irritating buzzwords and clichés no better than those damn quotes I keep seeing on my Facebook newsfeed.
Now and then though, I come across books that actually help its readers think differently. Love’s Executioner is one such book. Amazon files it under Medical Books > Psychology > Research, but I think anyone can get something out of reading it.
It takes the reader inside Dr. Yalom’s therapy room as he talks through his treatment of ten patients whose problems range from obesity (‘Fat Lady’), hard-headed unrequited love (‘Love’s Executioner’), grief over a dying child (‘The Wrong One Died’), and fear of death and a life not-well-lived (‘In Search of the Dreamer’). Dr. Yalom, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, tells their tales honestly and with frank insight, and even writes of his own little faults and shortcomings during therapy (“I had, once again, fallen prey to the grandiose belief that I can treat anyone”).
He writes beautifully, almost poetically, of basic human anxieties and fears. I read this book at a time in my life when I was asking myself almost daily if I was doing the right thing, if I was in the right career, if I wasn’t making a waste of my short blip of a life here on Earth. In the book’s prologue Dr. Yalom had a passage on meaning, which I’ll quote in full here (emphasis mine):
Now, if death is inevitable, if all of our accomplishments, indeed our entire solar system, shall one day lie in ruins, if the world is contingent (that is, if everything could as well have been otherwise), if human beings must construct the world and the human design within that world, then what enduring meaning can there be in life?
This question plagues contemporary men and women, and many seek therapy because they feel their lives to be senseless and aimless. We are meaning-seeking creatures. […] Meaning also provides a sense of mastery: feeling helpless and confused in the face of random, unpatterned events, we seek to order them and, in so doing, gain a sense of control over them. Even more important, meaning gives birth to values and, hence, to a code of behavior: thus the answer to why questions (Why do I live?) supplies an answer to how questions (How do I live?).
There are, in these ten tales of psychotherapy, few explicit discussions of meaning in life. The search for meaning, much like the search for pleasure, must be conducted obliquely. Meaning ensues from meaningful activity: the more we deliberately pursue it, the less likely are we to find it; the rational questions one can pose about meaning will always outlast the answers. In therapy, as in life, meaningfulness is a byproduct of engagement and commitment, and that is where therapists must direct their efforts — not that engagement provides the rational answer to questions of meaning, but it causes these questions not to matter.
Beautiful, and definitely food for thought.
Pair the book with a regular dose of ‘Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey’ (hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson) and a viewing of Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’ and reframe your perspective.
P.S. Big hug and thanks to my sister P.C. for discovering this book on my overcrowded shelf.