Compassion in action
I very much value this book, where ‘existentialist humanist’ psychotherapist Yalom explores the belief that it is the awareness of our own mortality, and the mortality of all around us, which is at the root of much of our deepest insecurities and anxieties. It is this which he looks to explore rather than the more day to day, personality based concerns which may be brought to the therapeutic encounter.
Two major strands which I found intensely moving in this book. Firstly Yalom’s willingness to be deeply honest, personal and authentic with his clients, rather than taking a god-like position assuming his own rightness. This leads to his willingness to share of himself with clients. This is something which can be seen as a bit of a no-no, in some schools, as of course the session is for and about the client, not the therapist, although of course the relationship between the two is crucial. However, if in therapy the client is always the one who is vulnerable, and the therapist never, it could be said there is an inauthenticity going on. Yalom is willing – WHERE THIS WILL BE OF USE FOR THE CLIENT – to reveal his own messy humanity. Willing to admit his wrongness. Willing to admit his difference and the client’s difference.
Secondly, and carrying on from the last sentence – I was particularly moved by his recounting of sessions with someone who had strong, what Yalom terms – ‘paranormal beliefs’. Yalom is an atheist, and expresses his disbelief in what might be thought ‘New Age’ thinking. Through his recognition and respect for the human being in his treatment room, he was able to acknowledge that the client’s beliefs were not ones he could share, but deeply recognise the health, not just the pathology, that caused his client to hold those beliefs. In other words, Yalom can work with paradox.
He is also a humane, warm and tender writer, able to communicate ideas with coherence and with clarity. The book feels like someone having a conversation with you, not someone preaching at you