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Reviews for Staring at the Sun

Library Journal — December 15, 2007  

Psychiatrist Yalom (emeritus, Stanford Univ. Sch. of Medicine) is noted for his stories (Love’s Executioner),novels (When Nietzsche Wept), and writing on group and existential psychotherapy. As the only creatures with foreknowledge of death-what Yalom calls “the mother of all religions” — we humans must find or create meaning within the limits of our existence. Yalom uses examples from therapy sessions, dreams, his own encounters with death, and his exchanges and experiences with his mentors and teachers to engage the reader in a compelling conversation among equals. The chapter titles “The Power of Ideas,” “The Awakening Experience,” “Overcoming Death Terror Through Connection,” and “Advice for Therapists” indicate his approach: viewing death’s shadow can save us from despair without the consolation of religion. At 75, Yalom proves to be at the prime of life as a therapist, a writer, and a quotidian soul. For adults and mature teens and likely to be a classic in the area of serious self-help and psychology; an essential library purchase.

E. James Lieberman, George Washington Univ. Sch. of Medicine, Washington, DC

Steve Heilig for the San Francisco Chronicle — Sunday, February 24, 2008,

Until only a decade or so ago, there were few books about death other than pioneering classics such as those by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Then Jack Kevorkian hit the front pages, a how-to guide to suicide hit the best-seller lists and, perhaps most important, the Baby Boomers began to hit late middle age. Now there are shelves of “death and dying” books. Yet, strangely enough, few have tackled what is probably the most universal aspect of dying other than death itself: fear of dying. Thus, renowned Stanford psychiatrist Irvin Yalom’s “Staring at the Sun” arrives to address an important niche in an inherently uncomfortable arena.


So what to do about the dread of death? Yalom offers no esoteric magic. His key prescriptions are true connections with others, a feeling one has lived well and “rippling” - having positive impacts and memories live on in others after you die. These deceptively obvious goals are, obviously, not easily attained: What thinking and feeling person truly lives a life with no regrets? But they are inarguably worthwhile ones.


“The more unlived the life, the greater one’s death anxiety,” Yalom posits. The message is thus to seize the day, whatever that might entail; Yalom asks patients and readers to ask themselves, “How can I live now without building new regrets?” Denial of fear never really works, and results in “disguised manifestations” such as “excessive religiosity, an all-consuming accumulation of wealth, and blind grasping for power and honors, all of which offer a counterfeit version of immortality.”


Denial of death can be dangerous, but so is dwelling on it. “It’s like trying to stare the sun in the face: you can only stand so much of it,” Yalom admits. In fact, that stare will blind you quickly, so most of us avert our eyes. His relatively brief book, coupled with our aging population and Yalom’s renown as a compassionate, brilliant author, might provide an instructive test of how many readers are willing to brave this particular examination of that ever-nearing personal “sun.”

Steve Heilig is co-editor of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics.

Please see the full text of this review at SFGate.com.

Washington Post Sunday — February 24, 2008 

“You cannot stare straight into the face of the sun, or death,” proclaimed La Rochefoucauld in the 17th century. Two new books prove the epigrammatical Frenchman wrong; Irvin D. Yalom and David Shields have stared deliberately at death. Although both got scorched, they survived to recount their quests in volumes whose contrasting approaches illuminate each other.

Yalom, a practicing psychiatrist, is the author of acclaimed nonfiction (Love’s Executioner) and fiction (When Nietzsche Wept) as well as of psychology textbooks. He writes from the perspective of what he calls “existential psychotherapy,” which adds another implement to counseling’s toolbox. Besides addressing childhood trauma, emotional isolation, repressed sexuality and the rest of our menu of ills, Yalom incorporates into his therapeutic approach another theme: existential malaise. Thanks to our awareness of mortality and a yearning to perpetuate our consciousness, he sighs, “we humans are the only creatures for whom our own existence is the problem.”

Staring at the Sun is neither textbook nor mere self-help. Philosophical it is, but never arid with theory. Its lively chapters are populated with patients whose raw angst Yalom refines into vignettes that are always enlightening and often quite moving. “Death has a long reach,” he writes, “with an impact that is often concealed.” He calls anxiety about death the mother of religion, but says his own work is “rooted in a secular, existential worldview that rejects supernatural beliefs.” With convincing examples, he argues that awareness of mortality “may serve as an awakening experience, a profoundly useful catalyst for major life changes.”

Publishers Weekly — November 5, 2007  

The philosopher Martin Heidegger once remarked that we can live intensely only if we stare death in the face every moment of our lives... Drawing on literature and film, as well as conversations with his patients, Yalom demonstrates how the fear of retirement, concerns about changing jobs or moving to another city, or changes in family status (such as the empty nest) are rooted in our deepest, most inescapable fear: of death. Yet, he says, this anxiety can prompt an awakening to life and help us realize our connections to others and our influence on those around us. Through such experiences we can transcend our sense of “finiteness and transiency” and live in the here and now. In a final chapter, Yalom offers instructions for therapists seeking to help their patients overcome death anxiety. Although in the 1980s Yalom, now 76, provided new insights into the human psyche with his innovative method of “existential psychotherapy,” this book recycles well-known philosophical insights, but Yalom’s humane, calm voice may bring them to a new audience.