La Rochefoucauld's maxim, "Le soleil ni la mort ne se peuvent regarder en face", reflects the folk belief that staring into either the sun or death is noxious. I would recommend staring into the sun to no one, but staring into death is quite another matter...
History teems with examples of the variegated ways we deny death. Socrates, for example, that staunch champion of the fully examined life, went to his death saying he was grateful to be free of "the foolishness of the body" and was certain he would spend eternity in philosophical converse with like-minded immortals.
The contemporary field of psychotherapy, so dedicated to critical self-exploration, so insistent on excavating the deepest layers of thought, has also shrunk away from examining our fear of death, the paramount and pervasive factor underlying so much of our emotional life.
I believe we should confront death as we confront other fears. We should contemplate our ultimate end, familiarise ourselves with it, dissect and analyse it, reason with it, and discard terrifying childhood death distortions.
Let's not conclude that death is too painful to bear, that the thought will destroy us, that transiency must be denied lest the truth render life meaningless. Such denial always exacts a price - narrowing our inner life, blurring our vision, blunting our rationality. Ultimately self-deception catches up with us.
Anxiety will always accompany our confrontation with death. I feel it now as I write these words; it is the price we pay for self-awareness... Staring into the face of death, with guidance, not only quells terror but renders life more poignant, more precious, more vital. Such an approach to death leads to instruction about life.
It is my hope that by grasping, really grasping, our human condition - our finiteness, our brief time in the light - we will come not only to savour the preciousness of each moment and the pleasure of sheer being but to increase our compassion for ourselves and for all other huaman beings.
N.B.: Excerpted from the Afterword of Staring at the Sun. Overcoming the Dread of Death (2008), by Irvin D. Yalom, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine.