One day I will die. The only unknown for me is how and where it will happen and under what circumstances. Additionally, who will be with me when it happens. The only certainty is that I know that I won’t be able to choose these things. Would it be better if I did? For some, this would be comforting, but for me personally, would bring an additional set of issues. I thought I was going to die in 2010 after a terrible accident and as I lost consciousness, I can only remember an image of my daughter then three, riding on a tricycle. After about six months of intensive care, I started to become aware of how much my life had changed and not just in a physical sense. I appeared to have lost a lot of the fear that dictated my life and the ten years since that time, have been the most adventurous of my life.
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At the moment, I am reading the excellent book by Irvin Yalom, Staring At The Sun. I am a great fan of the author generally, and his ideas on the client/therapist relationship should be standard reading for all new psychology students. In short, Irvin Yalom knows his subject and his views deserve the utmost respect.
Staring at the sun is somewhat different. It documents Yalom’s other theories on death anxiety and how a fear of death is really a fear of life and reaching the point of death without having accomplished the things that we feel we should have. We all think about death, and it is perhaps the most feared aspect of human nature. We know it will come, but we don’t know how and when. Religions and theories have been built on the basis of dealing with death and what might come after. Many people live their lives based on the fear of death, and Yalom states that most psychological issues have death anxiety at their root.
Yalom also states, quite rightly in my opinion, that we only really understand death when we have experienced it in some way. This would mean losing a loved one or having a brush with death on a personal level. He suggests this brings an “awakening” that teaches us more about life than death. He states that anyone who has encountered death will actually start to live. He uses the example of Scrooge in the Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol”, who is famously visited by the ghost of Christmas Future, who shows him his lonely death and how the people he terrorised dance in the streets at his demise. This instigates a change in Scrooge’s behaviour. Some have suggested that it may have been Dicken’s own fear of death that inspired the novel. In his own work in group therapy with terminally ill clients, Yalom frequently writes that the sufferers found a new lease on life once they knew about death and accepted it.
Given that Yalom’s views on an “awakening” after a brush with death can be given credence, how does it affect life? The reason the book is so interesting to me is that it mirrors that personal experience of mine, and I can categorically confirm that my life has been different since that nearly fateful day in 2010. It was May 20th and I was working on the roof of a barn that was being renovated (my weekend passion). Cutting a long story short, I fell through and landed on a concrete floor, 5 metres below (15 feet). I was heading down head first and probably certain death until I hit a spike jutting out from the wall that turned me and I fell on my right side, smashing my arm, wrist, shoulder, and ribs. I have metal plates to this day, but I am still alive, healthy and functioning well.
Even though I cannot really say that I thought about death frequently before the accident, I do believe that I had an “awakening” in the sense of Yalom’s work. After recovering, I felt more compassion, more desire to do things I had not done before, less cautious thinking and I gained more ability to stay in the moment and enjoy the present. I realised that I had been holding myself back, playing safe, planning for death. Now I plan for life.