Life Is Short

clockReflections on The Schopenhauer Cure
by Irvin D. Yalom

The Schopenhauer Cure is a novel about the inner workings of a group therapy process. As the story begins to unfold, Julius Hertzfeld, a seasoned therapist, has received a diagnosis of terminal melanoma and is compelled to invite a former client named Philip to join his weekly group. It is a book rich with psychological and philosophical reflections about the circle of life, an appropriate theme for a novel about group therapy since group therapy mirrors life…the cycle of group, its dynamics, the termination of the group process, and the personal growth that can be multiplied through the members’ ongoing circles of influence when the group disbands.

I found it rather ironic that the theme of The Schopenhauer Cure was death and dying. For the past couple of years the subject of death has been weighing more heavily on my mind. Heading towards sixty is sobering in and of itself, for sure. Life no longer stretches ahead indefinitely. “Seen from the standpoint of youth, life is an endlessly long future; from that of old age it resembles a very brief past.” (Yalom, quoting Schopenhauer in Chapter 34.)

The thing that has been most influential on my thoughts about mortality are the changes I’m seeing in my father. At the age of 84, his Parkinson’s disease is beginning to show up more often. We had a couple of scares last month. There were unusual bouts of confusion in addition to a general slowing down–a new development for a man who until recently has passed for ten or fifteen years younger.

Is there any way to truly prepare to say goodbye to someone you love? Probably not. So I am going to do my best to intentionally savor the times we have together. The alternative of death coming with no warning at all, bringing with it the pain of sudden grief and loss, is not what I would choose.

I don’t take time with my father for granted anymore. I find myself calling him more often, choosing not to delete voicemail in case it’s the last one, breathing in the scent of his breath when we hug goodbye–holding him a little bit longer and a little bit tighter. He hugs back in a way that lets me know he’s feeling the same way, too. We say I love you more often.

He’s not the only one getting older. I’m aging too. I know that because I see my firstborn, nearly a grown up. She’s a freshman at college now and the purveyor of an occasional call or text. Wasn’t she learning to walk just a year or two ago?

Here’s an interesting observation. This reflection began with a mention of my mortality but the last three hundred words have avoided that reality, diverting the focus towards my father and my daughter. I suppose that’s not coincidental. Few people want to talk about their eventual demise. So at least, I’m normal.

Back to the story: On the day Julius received his diagnosis and tragedy struck, he recalled that, “nothing seemed important.” Everything changed in one instant. I remember the day I found out my first marriage was over. It was as if the world suddenly went slightly askew. The sounds of people around me took on a discordant tone. The way the air smelled and the sun shone seemed different. Even my sense of my body moving in space changed. Similarly, time stands still for the person given a diagnosis of cancer. Everything and nothing has changed. It’s all a matter of perspective.

“The whole world assumes a smiling aspect when we have reason to rejoice, and a dark and gloomy one when sorrow weighs in upon us.” (Yalom, in chapter 28)

So I must remember when I am counseling a person who has gone through a trauma that their perception of reality is going to be distorted from the “normal them.” There must be a certain time of healing before any real work can be done. Clients in the early days of their recovery might be treated as triage patients. Perhaps the counselor’s role can be described as a lily pad. When a frog hops from one lily pad to the next, if it stops for too long, the frog’s weight might be too much for the lily pad to hold it up. But in that moment, the lily pad provides enough support to keep the frog from sinking.

In the book, Julius talks about his realization that “these are the good old days.” Previously he had lived under the assumption that his arc of success would continue on an upward spiral, that life “would always get better and better.” Then he realizes that he had gotten it completely wrong–that the opposite was actually true. Richard Rohr, a well-known Franciscan monk, author, and retreat leader puts it in a different way. Speaking of the two halves of life in his book Falling Upward, Rohr says that those who have failed (usually in the first half of life) are the only ones who understand “up.” While we tend to talk about the second half of life in the context of getting old and dying, Rohr says that what appears to others as our falling down can actually be experienced as falling upward, of experiencing not loss, but gain.

About ten years ago, I visited The Biltmore in North Carolina. We went on a tour, listened to stories about George Vanderbilt’s visions of grandeur and service to the locals and imagined what it would be like to live in 178,000 square feet of opulent luxury. Near the end of the tour, our guide made a passing comment that has stuck with me since. Vanderbilt spent two decades of his life completely consumed in the construction of his castle. And then he left his young wife a widow, dying unexpectedly from acute appendicitis–only 11 years after the home was completed. All that work, and only eleven years to enjoy it! Little time to sit back and savor what he had accomplished; certainly not what he’d had in mind for their golden years. Much like Julius, death came prematurely and he was gone.

Circling back around to my own mortality, several years ago I made an intentional decision to go back to school and become a licensed therapist. This radical change in my journey will, I hope, allow me to leave a better legacy. I hope my role in lives changing will ripple down and effect generations in the future. This gives my life new meaning now, and in the future.

In The Schopenhauer Cure, Julius relates a story about 9/11 and how recovery efforts at Ground Zero would halt “to honor the dead as each pallet of newly discovered remains was brought to the surface.” He suggests this gesture by the firemen signified their connectivity with each victim. But more than giving meaning to their deaths, he said, it gave meaning to their lives.

All of us want to leave here believing we will live on in some meaningful way–through our children’s children, books written, songs composed, lives changed. It’s a way to become eternal (whether or not we believe in an afterlife). Julius committed to “not to make [his last] one good year a bad year by grieving that it was not more than a year.” He chose to engage with group members instead of succumbing to a self-pity party, and primarily due to that choice the group’s work in the final months was able to be deep, life changing, and a grand swan song for Julius Hertzfeld.

In the end, Julius sees the group members beginning to coalesce as the group winds down. Sadly, Julius’ story ends rather abruptly; he passes away just before the final group meeting, leaving members to sort out final closure with each other. While Julius never gets to hold up his end of the bargain and provide supervisory hours to Philip, Yalom leaves no doubt in the readers’ minds that he would most certainly have willingly supported Philip’s quest for licensure. Julius’ bequest of the circle of chairs makes his intentions very clear.

Life has often been compared to a tapestry. Arthur Schopenhauer echoes this thought, describing life as a “piece of embroidered material of which, everyone in the first half of his time, comes to see the top side, but in the second half, the reverse side. The latter is not so beautiful, but is more instructive because it enables one to see how the threads are connected together.”

Yalom weaves a beautiful tapestry in The Schopenhauer Cure. For much of the book we are limited to seeing only the reverse side, but in the final chapter Yalom flips over the fabric. As seven group members file into the room and take their places in the chairs with co-leaders Philip and Tony for the first time, we begin to see what a wonderful pattern he has woven. And the circle begins all over again.

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