Irvin Yalom’s Relief from Despair
If your anxiety and depression has made you turn on everyone and everything, if the closest you get to other people is in the commission of your sexual addiction, if you’re so spiteful, grouchy, and malevolent that even your own mother can’t stand the sight of you, if you’re any one of those things some of the time, or all of them all the time; then boy, do I have a philosopher for you. He created a dismal justification of universal hopelessness, as well as a costly way to cope with it. The philosopher I’m talking about is Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), a thoroughly wretched human being.
Schopenhauer was lucky enough to be the only child of a wealthy businessman, but unlucky to have his father commit suicide when he was young. His mother sent him away and proceeded to spend whatever she could of the fortune, sending him letters telling her son how horrible he was. There was enough left over for him to live simply, spend the rest on prostitutes and chorus girls, and write books no one read until he was old. He was racist and misogynoustic, not only by our standards, but by the norms of his own day. He was the kind of guy who saw nothing wrong in pushing a woman down the stairs to make her leave. He formed his philosophy when he was a young man and never changed a thing as he matured, perhaps because he never matured.
By contrast, Irvin D. Yalom is a treasure, a therapist of uncommon elegance and vision. He wrote an important textbook on group psychotherapy, Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy, a book that has greatly influenced me. I just finished another of his books, The Schopenhauer Cure, a clever combination of a novel, Schopenhauer biography, and infomercial for group therapy. As a novel, it’s not great; for the plot is contrived and the dialogue stilted. As a biography, I wanted more; but as a convincing argument for group therapy, there’s no parallel.
Yalom tells the story of a therapist, Julius Hertzfeld, who has just been told he has a year to live. He decides to look up a former patient, Philip Slate, a misanthropic, narcissistic sex addict, whom he had failed to help. Philip is in recovery from his addiction but is just as cold and unfeeling as ever. He could have been the rebirth of Arthur Schopenhauer. Julius is horrified to hear that Philip hopes to become a counselor and he asks Julius to be his supervisor. This is despite the fact that, after he quit therapy with Julius, Philip had discovered the writings of Schopenhauer, who cured his sex addiction when Julius could not. Philip hopes to use Schopenhauer’s philosophy with his own clients.
There may be no philosopher less likely to help a suffering addict than Arthur Schopenhauer. His philosophy offers no hope for the relief of misery. In fact, he says we all would have been better off to have never been born. The next best thing would be to deny our desires, for it is desire that causes our unhappiness in the first place.
Schopenhauer’s philosophy has a lot in common with that of the Buddha. They both say that life is unmitigated suffering. They seek to escape desire. In fact, Schopenhauer was steeped in Eastern philosophy, but Schopenhauer came upon his convictions differently. All that we know of the world, he said, is through our representations of it. We are unable to perceive things in themselves. Everything is distorted by the limitations of our understanding. The exception to this is the Will. We all know the Will directly by the experience we have of our desires and emotions. It is the Will that causes all the suffering in the world when we seek to satisfy our desires. The Will is dumb and blind. It doesn’t know what it wants, it just wants. It’s up to us to turn our Will towards some end, but we always choose poorly because of the limits of our understanding. Schopenhauer thought that we’d be better off not wanting anything at all.
This philosophy was enough to help Philip overcome his sexual addiction. He could buy the idea that his desire for sex was the Will misdirected because, just as soon as he had sex, he just wanted it again. He was driven by the Will to seek an end to his loneliness and despair through carnal relations. Instead, he chose a life of chastity, asceticism, and social isolation. This is the Schopenhauer cure; or at least one of them. The other Schopenhauer cure is a cure from Schopenhauer.
Here’s where Yalom’s own philosophy comes in, to cure us from Schopenhauer. Yalom uses his character, Julius as his mouthpiece to argue that relationships and emotions relieve suffering. Julius insists that Philip join his therapy group, where he learns how and why to relate to others. The book demonstrates the effectiveness of group therapy. Yalom is known for having identified eleven factors that influence change and healing in group settings. These are: the instillation of hope, learning you’re not alone, gaining information that empowers, helping others, corrective experiences of earlier interpersonal traumas, practicing interpersonal skills, adopting coping strategies and perspectives by imitation, developing supportive relationships, acceptance, catharsis of suppressed emotions, and learning how to exist as part of something larger than yourself. If only Schopenhauer had access to group therapy, he would have come to different conclusions in his philosophy.
Philip had failed to recognize that the effort involved in being so chaste, ascetic, and isolated, was just another manifestation of the Will. It takes a lot of Will to deny your desires. You must really want to stop wanting things to stop wanting things. Philip was still in his misery. It’s a different looking misery, but it’s a misery, just the same. Chastity, asceticism, and social isolation protected him from the return of his sexual addiction, but it also prevented him from experiencing a full life. As hard as life is sometimes, there’s still plenty of pleasure, relief, happiness, and love for those who look for it.
You might recognize this as the middle path that Buddha learned to take, steering between privation and indulgence. In that case, you know more about Buddhism than Schopenhauer ever did, and he spent a lifetime studying it. It must be that he was just looking for material to confirm how he already felt, that life was not worth living. Given his early experiences, I don’t blame him for feeling that way. I only wish he had been open enough to admit he was wrong.
The book left me feeling nostalgic for the therapy groups I’ve led or been a member of. I used to lead two or three groups a day for populations as varied as the chronically mentally ill and the severely addicted, to sex offenders and domestic violence perpetrators. Yalom is right. There’s a magic that occurs in skillfully led groups that is not available in individual therapy. I stopped leading groups because it’s so hard to get people to join them when they are not compelled to by the legal system or the severity of their symptoms. They are wrongly convinced that group therapy is a watered down version of individual therapy, where you get your therapist all to yourself, when in fact, it’s the other way around. You get eight therapists, as opposed to just one. Then the pandemic happened, and I put a stop to trying. Maybe it’s time to try again. Perhaps enforced social isolation has convinced people that others have something to offer them. Perhaps we are all tired of Schopenhauer’s cure from suffering by deprivation and are ready to try the cure from Schopenhauer by reconnecting.