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Irvin D. Yalom

Overcoming the Terror of Death

4.1 (17 ratings)
18 mins
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    Staring at the Sun
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    What does death anxiety look like?

    Many people shy away from thinking about their mortality. Then, one day, they find themselves unable to avoid it. Maybe it’s a sign of aging, a health scare, or the death of a loved one. Maybe it’s just a thought they can’t shake. Death is the most fundamental fear in nature, and it’s something everyone has to confront at some point.

    Mary was 32 years old when she described waking to the stark realization that her death wasn’t just hypothetical. Up until that point, she’d always pictured another version of herself at the end of their life, old or sick maybe, ready to go. But the truth was that one day, she’d die. That person wasn’t going to be some character she’d conjured up, someone separate from herself. One day, the person she was now would experience death. Suddenly, she was terrified.

    For weeks, Mary was haunted by her mortality. Her fear was what’s called overt death anxiety – conscious contemplation of your inevitable demise. Others have more specific fears, particular deaths that play out in their minds, or dreams of violent ends.

    But sometimes a death phobia isn’t so obvious. Often, covert death anxiety lurks just below awareness. The subject of mortality itself is sidestepped, placing unconscious anxieties onto other subjects in life.

    Susan, a middle-aged accountant, channeled covert death anxiety into extreme distress when her son was arrested for drug possession. While it is, of course, expected that a mother will be upset in that situation, Susan’s response was extreme. Her health and personal hygiene deteriorated. She was incapacitated by emotion, constantly weeping and unable to go to work. Awake and asleep, she couldn’t shake catastrophic visions of her son’s death in prison.

    Her son’s drug problem wasn’t a surprise. He was a recovering addict at the time of his arrest and had several relapses that Susan had previously been able to deal with. So, what was different this time?

    Working with her therapist, Susan began to unpack how her son had become over-central to her identity and self-worth. Like many parents, she’d relied on her son as a sort of immortality project – her vehicle for symbolic self-extension through future generations. With Susan approaching a milestone birthday, her son’s plight triggered her to confront her mortality. She was experiencing it as a threat to her own life.

    When Susan sought out therapy, she wanted help to deal with her feelings for her son. But what she really needed to address was her feelings about her own life. Over the coming months, she focused on readjusting her priorities. Instead of spending her time setting up a hypothetical future through which she could persist, she worked on building a fulfilling life in the present. She started to live for herself.

    So, death anxiety can look very different to different people. It can be an extreme reaction to natural signs of aging, a fixation on white hair or age spots, for example. Maybe it manifests as career or retirement panic. Even something like hoarding behaviors can be an attempt to exert control over the physical world, trying to avoid natural transitions. Covert death anxiety can emerge through displacement, projecting existential angst onto mundane stresses.

    Whether it’s specific or bubbling below the surface, anxiety around the end of your life is an important and often overlooked topic. You might feel helpless. But at some point in time, everyone has to face this particular fear. So how do you live, knowing that one day you’ll die? We’ll cover that next.

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    What is Staring at the Sun about?

    Staring at the Sun (2008) explores the universal human fear of death and strategies for alleviating death anxiety. It blends psychotherapy case studies with philosophical ideas to argue confronting mortality is key to living a meaningful, present-focused life. Through vivid patient stories, it illuminates how facing death enables you to prioritize what really matters.

    Staring at the Sun Review

    Staring at the Sun (2008) by Irvin D. Yalom is a thought-provoking exploration of mortality and the pursuit of meaning in life. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • It offers deep insights into the human condition, challenging readers to confront their fear of death and embrace the possibilities of life.
    • With its compelling case studies and poignant stories of Yalom's therapy sessions, the book provides a unique and intimate perspective on existential issues.
    • The author's compassionate and empathetic approach towards his patients and their struggles creates a compelling narrative that keeps readers engaged and invested.

    Who should read Staring at the Sun?

    • People anxious about death
    • Therapists hoping to understand more about death anxiety 
    • Anyone who’s coming to terms with the fact that they’re going to die one day

    About the Author

    Irvin D. Yalom is an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Stanford University who pioneered the field of group psychotherapy. He’s authored many best-selling books integrating philosophy and psychology, including Love's Executioner, The Gift of Therapy, and Creatures of a Day. His writings on existential therapy approaches and reflections on mortality draw on more than 50 years of psychiatric practice and teaching.

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    Staring at the Sun FAQs 

    What is the main message of Staring at the Sun?

    The main message of Staring at the Sun is embracing our mortality and living a fulfilling life.

    How long does it take to read Staring at the Sun?

    The reading time for Staring at the Sun varies, but it typically takes several hours. The Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Staring at the Sun a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Staring at the Sun is a thought-provoking book that encourages reflection on mortality. It's definitely worth reading for those interested in existential themes.

    Who is the author of Staring at the Sun?

    Irvin D. Yalom is the author of Staring at the Sun.