Living with the givens : Isolation, Meaninglessness, Mortality, Freedom
I value Irvin D. Yalom‘s books on his psychotherapy work hugely, because the weight of his arguments go far outside the field of psychotherapy, and explore what the beingness of human entails. Much of what he explores in the one-to-one sessions can be translated into the relationship each of us has, firstly, with ourselves, and secondly, with ‘the other’. This to me is the fascination of the existential approach : how we deal with these givens: isolation, meaninglessness, mortality and freedom.
These are not just problems for those society might perceive of as ‘unwell’ and needing help – they are the bedrock of being a self-conscious embodied being, and flow, like a deep river, more or less acknowledged and observed, through our day to day moment to moment lives.
The wonderful and shocking title of the book refers to the role of therapy in helping us to see clear and live outside denial – the denial of the challenges of those four givens. The psychotherapist is here cast as the executioner of illusion – not of love itself, but the giddy, distorting, exhilarating, wondrous ‘being in love’ state. We all crave and enjoy this – but it is an illusory state, a kind of unreal, seductive, beautiful madness; it is intoxication, and is possibly the most potent of intoxicants. The broken illusions and despairs of the Western Romantic Tradition bring many into therapy. How do we live with the loving, which will always bring losing (through mortality, if nothing else) when the champagne intoxication of blissfulness (in love) loses the bubble, and we taste it without that giddy sparkle
What I particularly like, from the psychotherapeutic encounter considerations of this book is that Yalom is able to say ‘this is where I got in the way, this is where my own agenda inhibited the client’s journey and progress’ He is not afraid to step outside of the illusory framework of ‘the objective, non-judgemental practitioner’ and say that though this is what we may aim for, in theory, in the reality of practice as human beings we cannot help but bring our own prejudices into the treatment room. Far from being appalled by (for example) his honesty about his inability to see the real suffering individual behind his stereotypical very overweight client, I am impressed that he is honest enough to look at himself and his prejudices, and how they impact, negatively or positively, upon the process for the client, and offer that honesty to us, his readers. What is important is to be able to acknowledge our prejudices, not pretend we don’t have them, or be in denial about the buttons clients (or any other human being) may push. We need to know what is our stuff, in order to really see our clients (or any other)
Some fellow professionals have criticised Yalom for writing so much about himself, however I think this is the strength of the book. It shows the willing, but inevitably imperfect practitioner in action. Self-reflection is always crucial, and its great to see such an obviously highly revered practitioner and teacher showing where he fails his clients, as well as where he supports them beautifully. The perfect therapist/client encounter (for the client) is an ongoing journey in process, sometimes practitioners and clients manage a session almost perfectly, sometimes the dynamic isn’t quite right; its great to see honesty, rather than the great guru displaying his perfection. The really great guru is the one who lets us see his imperfections!