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The givens of existence

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In 1989 Irwin Yalom’s book, ‘Love’s executioner – and other tales of psychotherapy’ was published. It’s an excellent book and essential reading for people working in the helping professions. In this brief note I shall focus simply upon some of the content of Yalom’s ‘prologue’, a prologue which sets the scene for the ten fascinating psychotherapeutic case studies that he subsequently presents.

In the prologue he outlines the basis of his theory and practice of psychotherapy. He does this by focusing on a contemporary reality of the human condition: he reflects on the fact that if people are asked, over and over again, ‘what do you want?’ they may be stirred to their depths – and strong emotions may be unleashed – as they come to call out to those who are forever lost. He notes that beneath the surface – beneath ‘the membrane of life’ – lies the pain associated with deep but ‘unattainable’ wants. He points out that:

Many things – a simple group exercise, a few minutes of deep reflection, a work of art, a sermon, a personal crisis, a loss – remind us that our deepest wants can never be fulfilled.

Amongst the unattainable wants, the wants that can never be fulfilled are ‘our wants for youth, for a halt to ageing, for the return of vanished ones, for eternal love, protection, significance, for immortality itself.’ As a result it is difficult to imagine any human life that can be immune to the experience of existential pain, the pain that is inevitably generated by unattainable wants.

Yalom observes that it is when these unattainable wants have come to dominate our life that we turn for help to whatever may alleviate the pain – and perhaps, therefore, to psychotherapy or counselling. Sometimes people turned to Yalom, himself, for psychotherapy. But when they did he found that ‘somehow’ therapy uncovered the deep roots of his patients’ problems – ‘roots stretching down to the bedrock of existence’. He tells us that all his patients suffered from ‘existence pain’ – and ‘existence pain’ derives from the harsh facts of life, the ‘givens’ of existence.’ But what are the harsh facts or life? What are the givens of existence that we all have to experience and face? In a nutshell, Yalom provides us with an answer:

I have found that four givens [of existence] are particularly relevant to psychotherapy:

the inevitability of death for each and all of us and for those we love

the freedom to make our lives as we will

our ultimate aloneness 

the absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life.

But, he recognises that, however grim these ‘givens’ may seem, they contain the seeds of wisdom and redemption.

He continues:

I hope [in this book] to demonstrate … that it is possible to confront the truths of existence and harness their power in the service of personal at change and growth’ and, after briefly and brilliantly discussing how we confront the four givens of existence, he concludes with the telling statement that since none of us can avoid the harsh facts of life ‘we are all, all of us, in this together.’ We are all, in effect, fellow travellers; and so, in a paradoxical sense, we are not alone.

This is an important book that repays careful study. Yalom’s analysis of the ways we may deny the reality of – or delude ourselves in the face of – the givens of existence is sensitive, informed and masterly.  His text may well help its reader to come to terms with some of the main challenges of our contemporary (and often rather crazy) existence.

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