Editor’s note: CT Online columnist Cheryl Fisher writes this appreciation of Irvin Yalom in anticipation of his keynote address at ACA’s upcoming 2017 Conference & Expo in San Francisco. Find out more at counseling.org/conference/sanfransisco2017.
“What I want is to be intimate with the knowledge that life is temporary. And then, in the light (or shadow) of that knowledge, to know how to live. How to live now.”
― Irvin Yalom, Creatures of a Day: And Other Tales of Psychotherapy
I have a passion for books. You know, the old-fashioned paper kind. The kind that are transforming, as they [themselves] are transformed by every crinkled, coffee-stained page and dog-eared corner with smudges of comments penciled in the margin. The kind that, once read, become a part of one’s being. I love books so much that this past summer, I had beautiful built-in bookshelves installed in my home, along with a window seat where I fancied myself enjoying my literary mecca. I have shelves devoted to theologians, philosophers, feminist scholars and mental and holistic health experts ― with a smattering of best-selling novels and summer romance paperbacks.
As I reflect on the insights penned on the pages of the many volumes now perched on my bookshelves, my attention turns to the vast wisdom found in the works of Irvin Yalom. His work, spanning decades, contributes to the counseling profession in ways that transformed psychotherapy from science to art. In The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients, Yalom invites the clinician to not only invest in, but therapeutically utilize, the client-counselor relationship that presents in each session. Through a series of vignettes, Love’s Executioner provides examples of the tender and complex tapestry of human experience that occurs between the therapist and client: “A therapist helps a patient not by sifting through the past but by being lovingly present with that person; by being trustworthy, interested, and by believing that their joint activity will ultimately be redemptive and healing.”
In Momma and the Meaning of Life, Yalom graciously offers his experience in grappling with his relationship with his own mother (“who had a poisonous tongue”) years after her death. He further examines grief therapy intimately by exploring the many facets of loss and death. He continues his exploration of death anxiety in Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, where he posits, “It’s not easy to live every moment wholly aware of death. It’s like trying to stare the sun in the face; you can stand only so much of it.” He returns to the topic of death anxiety as he explores his own mortality in his more recent release, Creatures of a Day and Other Tales of Psychotherapy.
In his fictional teaching novels — The Schopenhauer Cure, The Spinoza Problem, Lying on the Couch and, my personal favorite, When Nietzsche Wept — Yalom plucks key philosophers and physicians from history and transplants them into a terrace of tales that not only explore the complexity of human behavior and mental processes, but dare to venture into the minds of those who struggle to understand it.
Yalom’s words and transparency have informed my own practice and guided me to discover my ultimate message as a counselor educator: “Illuminate the shadow and embrace your humanity so that you may fully consummate your life. For we are people, not pathologies seeking to connect to oneself, others and the Sacred.”
In tribute to this great clinician, author and educator, I offer online readers the article I wrote as a final letter to my graduating counseling students, titled What Would Yalom Do? Ten Nuggets of Wisdom for Counselors Old and New.
Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland, and a visiting full-time faculty member in the Pastoral Counseling Department at Loyola University Maryland. Her current research examines sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer. She is working on a book titled Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically Based Organic Practices that speaks to nature-based wisdom. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Irvin Yalom will speak Friday, March 17 at the 2017 ACA Conference & Expo in San Francisco and will sign books afterward. His keynote will also be live-streamed online. Find out more at counseling.org/conference/sanfrancisco2017
Find out more about his work and books at yalom.com
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