Existentialist and Novelist Dr Irvin Yalom on the Meaning of Life

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Why *are* we here?

World-renowned psychotherapist and author Dr Irvin Yalom is doing the press interview rounds in promotion of his upcoming The School of Life event this weekend, which explores a topic he has devoted his 86 years to unravelling – what is the meaning of life? A pioneer in the field of existential psychotherapy, Irvin has worked hard to address humanity’s biggest fears: isolation, mortality, meaninglessness and freedom. In October of 2017, he released his book Becoming Myself: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir, which sees this insightful thinker analyse key moments of his life and how they have informed the man he is today. “I decided to try and write about my life because I feel there were a lot of untold stories that I had,” he shares.

Here’s our recent chat with the therapist with a philosopher’s mind. Irvin says he still sees two to three patients every day in Palo Alto, California, where he lives with his wife, Marilyn.

An interview with Irvin Yalom

You’re a writer, doctor, storyteller. As a young man, were these the professions you’d aimed for?
Yes, I think so. I’ve always been interested in reading and reading good writing. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. My parents were immigrants and not educated. I never knew there was such thing as being a professional writer. The important thing was integrating into the American culture, and being a doctor was a very good way… a great many of us from that generation wanted to become doctors. We took pre-med in college and became physicians. So it was an insured way to become part of the American culture.

I recently had a health scare. It’s the first time I’ve seriously been faced with my own death. It’s given me a strange and new clarity. What’s going on?
You know what’s important. You’re seeing your life in a little bit clearer focus right now. You’ve realised that we want to use our time in the best possible way. It’s shocked you into a position where there’s a more informed view. I feel like, in the future, that you may look back on this experience and think it’s kind of a turning point in your life.

I think that people who have a sense of some purpose of being helpful for others, tend to deal with life much more fully.

When you reflect on your life, what are the things that have truly mattered to you?
Reading, my writing, my becoming a physician, and perhaps most of all my marriage. I’ve been married a very, very long time. We’re going over 60 years. My relationship with my wife [Marilyn Yalom] has been paramount in my life.

To what do you attribute the strength and longevity of your marriage?
I don’t know. We were both scholars, both interested in reading. She got her PhD in literature, I got my MD. We’ve always enjoyed each other and have respect for each other’s abilities and we’ve both been writers. For 20 years she’s been matching me book for book. She has a book that came out last week in fact.

Does a deeper existential understanding improve one’s relationships?
I think it does. We have a clearer notion of who we are, what we are. That our life is limited. I think it allows us to relate more authentically to others.

What does living more authentically mean exactly?
Well, it’s hard to define. It’s a way of living without building up regrets. I try to be generous to people. I take my profession very seriously; I’m seeing people who are troubled every day. I try to do my best to help them and be in touch with a number of people; I have close friends. I try and live a life that’s beneficial for me and for others as much as I possibly can.

Any ideas of being invulnerable is really a fantasy.

In your memoir, Becoming Myself, you touch on the fact there are unsaid things between you and your parents who’ve passed. Have you accepted this, or does it linger on your mind?
Well, I have regrets. I can appreciate, perhaps more than ever now, the very, very difficult life my parents had. They were so out of touch with the American culture, that for me to become part of the American culture, meant that I was less and less in touch with them, I think. They had no education, and they were anxious that I got an education, even though the more education I got, the more it was pulling me away from them and their culture.

What wisdom do you hope to pass onto your children?
I think I pass on to my children what I pass on to all people I come into contact with. Which is to be kind to people and to have respect for learning and reading. All my children have enjoyed the intellectual life and many have had similar lives to me; my son’s a psychologist; my daughter’s an obstetrician; I’ve got another son who loves the arts and he’s a theatre director. Another son who was an artistic photographer. They’ve all tried to excel in their professions.

Is vulnerability required for one to really know themselves?
I think if they’re going to really know themselves, they have to examine and identify the parts that are vulnerable. And any ideas of being invulnerable is really a fantasy

In terms of spouses dying, males attempt to repair, to find another person, much more quickly than women do. I used to say that men re-paired, and thus didn’t repair.

You’ve said you’re less intrigued by Superman because of his invulnerability.
That’s right. All the superheroes I liked had some kind of a flaw.

Has the process of discovery and learning about yourself continued to this day?
Oh, yes. Oh, very much so. There’s a chapter in my book where I talk about groups in my life. So I go to a group of other therapists, every week there’s a different kind of group that I go to. It’s kind of a personal growth group of other psychiatrists. I’ve got a group of doctors who write; we meet monthly and go to other readings by doctors. I’m going to one tomorrow night. So yeah, we have to keep working on ourselves all the time.

Are you someone who has suffered others telling you to slow down?
No, I don’t think so. I’ve always kind of had a yearning and a zest for enjoying myself and taking vacations, and a lot of my books were written when we were on vacation or on sabbatical on islands. I like desert islands and to explore them. So games are really important to me in my life; I like to play chess with my children.

When my father died, people didn’t seem to want to talk about it. It made them uncomfortable. Why are we uncomfortable about such a key part of life?
It’s true, not only with bereavement like you were going through, it’s also true for patients who are dealing with a serious illness, like cancer and they don’t want to talk about it too much because they feel they’re going to drag everyone else down. Other people don’t know how talk to them about it. I worked for 10 years with people who had cancer and that’s why I started leading groups of patients with cancer because they were free to talk more openly, and not so worried about it. People handle death quite differently, and males and females deal with it differently too. In terms of spouses dying, males attempt to repair, to find another person, much more quickly than women do. I used to say that men re-paired, and thus didn’t repair. Work through the whole issue of being alone and having lost the person you loved. [They] obscured it in a way by pairing up again very quickly.

You talk a lot of the meaning of life. Why is it important for us to consider this question.
Well, it may not be important, but people often do. What are we here for? What purpose do we have? And I think that people who have a sense of some purpose of being helpful for others, tend to deal with life much more fully. The idea of life being meaningless is something that can drag people down to deep depression. I’ve tried to guide people back to meaning in some cases. There’s a book that’s very important to our field called The Meaning of Life by Viktor Frankl. That book’s been at the No.1 spot in psychology and psychotherapy for about 40 years or so. It keeps on being important people.

How do you fill your days?
Nowadays, I see patients every day, but not many. Maybe two or three a day at the most. I do an awful lot of time returning email of people who write me, and playing around with doing some writing. Not seriously working on a book, but thinking about various stories. Trying to find time to write every day. Going to see doctors. I’ve been sick – I have a bit of a problem with my balance, so I see a physical therapist a couple of times a week.

Irvin Yalom On The Meaning of Life will take place in Sydney on Sunday 11 February and in Melbourne on Sunday 18 February. Tickets for both events are on sale now at theschooloflife.com

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