Being Comfortable with Not Knowing: Dr. Yalom, Writers Block, and the Search for a Cure

Last night as I lie in bed I committed to starting a new practice. Namely, to read a text daily that has some existential undertones to it just before resting my head on the pillow. This, one goal in a larger series of goals that I chose to embark on so as to raise my overall health and well-being. So, my wonderful wife and best friend lovingly checked out Irvin Yalom’s Creatures of a Day, and I began to advance my intellectual goal for the day. Suffice to say, I ended up reading 15 pages, and I am glad that I did.

Dr. Yalom, I would like a consultation. I’ve read your novel When Nietzsche Wept, and wonder if you’d be willing to see a fellow writer with a writing block. — Paul Andrews

In this collection of short stories, Dr. Yalom recounts his patient’s (as well as his own) struggles to address the two great challenges in life: 1) how to live a meaningful life and 2) how to deal with death. In chapter 1, The Crooked Cure, Dr. Yalom writes of his one and only appoitnment with Paul Andrews. Throughout the story Dr. Yalom struggles to find Paul, an eighty-four year old man with “writers block” who, after two valiant attempts, failed to complete his doctoral degree at Princeton (first in philosophy and then literature). Paul, witholding as much information possible, gingerly walks Dr. Yalom through his life’s story. And, as Dr. Yalom attempts to diagnose Paul (every step of the way), he finally manages to break-through when Paul suddenly shares of his ongoing correspondence and relationship with his dissertation director who recently passed away. Dr Yalom writes:

Maybe Paul is suffereing from chronic unresolved grief. Yes, yes — certainly that’s it. That’s what he’s trying to tell me by asking me to read these letters to and from the dead.

Dr. Yalom continues to page through Paul’s correspondence, when suddenly one letter strikes him as quite perplexing. In response to one of his professor’s letters, Paul writes:

Given the choice between living and examining, I’ll choose living any day. I eschew the malady of explanation and urge you to do likewise. The drive to explain is an epidemic in modern thought and its major carriers are contemporary therapists: every shrink I have ever seen suffers from this malady, and it is addictive and contagious. Explanation is an illusion, a mirage, a construct, a soothing lullaby. Explanation has no existence. Let’s call it by its proper name, a coward’s defense against the white-knuckled, knee-knocking, terror of the precariousness, indifference and capriciousness of sheer existence.

After reading and re-reading the passage, Dr. Yalom is forced to think about his own contribution to the aforementioned epidemic, and perhaps more specifically about his own contribution in his session with Paul. In deep reflection, he realizes that Paul has not come to meet about his writer’s block, rather, that he simply asked for a consultation. Remember:

Dr. Yalom, I would like a consultation. I’ve read your novel When Nietzsche Wept, and wonder if you’d be willing to see a fellow writer with a writing block. — Paul Andrews

Dr. Yalom makes a fresh start, “Tell me, how can I be of help to you?”

Paul, “Your reflections on the correspondence…Any and every observation would be most helpful to me.”

Now, knowing precisouly Paul’s needs, Dr. Yalom comments on said correspondence. Consequently, Dr. Yalom realized that what Paul truly needed was someone to witness him, someone like his professor, a dear friend, someone of stature. Having packed away his manuscript of correspondence, Paul motioned to leave. Dr. Yalom asked, “Am I right Paul?” Paul replied:

I desired a consltation with you because I desired it. And now I’ve had the consultation, and I obtained precisely what I wished for. You’ve been helpful, exceedingly helpful. I expected nothing less. Thank you.

Filled with a deep need for greater clarification, Dr. Yalom asked if Paul would be willing to expound for a moment on what he received from their session together, noting that such a pracitce would be of service to Paul, as well as a service to Dr. Yalom and his future clients. Paul replied,

Irv, I regret having to leave you with so many riddles, but I’m afraid our time is up.

Having reflected on my own patterns, I quickly realized that I am far too quick to judge, offer advice, and explain away — unconscious of what impact, if any, my words and life experience are having on the listener. Therefore, I intend to deepen my capacity to be comfortable with not knowing and not feeling the need to explain myself or my thoughts to others unless I am crystal clear on what they need. In short, asking others what they need, rather than assuming I know, are two very different things. So, here is to deep listening. Here is to affirming one’s experience with active silence.