Oliver Sacks Wrote About His Cancer In February, And Here Are 6 Beautiful Takeaways
Well-known and well-loved neurologist and author Oliver Sacks has died, but he left us some very powerful last writings to remember him by. Sacks had been diagnosed almost a decade earlier with cancer, but he had seemed to beat it and lived on. Then, in February, Sacks wrote about his cancer in The New York Times, explaining that it was back and it had metastasized, by then having spread to his liver with no treatment options available. Sacks was already acquainted with many varieties of human life, having studied psychological anomalies for his entire career. He seemed to approach his own death as if it were one more chance for studying experience in all its forms, as both an observer and a subject simultaneously.
A quick death and a slow death are each sad in their own ways, but a relatively slow death granted to such a thoughtful and eloquent man gave him perhaps the best gift he still could have gotten out of the last of his life — an opportunity to say his piece for the last time. These words seemed like gems even prior to Sacks' ultimate departure, but they are even more meaningful now that the last chapter of his life has closed for good, with so many of us watching.
1. "While I have enjoyed loving relationships and friendships and have no real enmities, I cannot say (nor would anyone who knows me say) that I am a man of mild dispositions. On the contrary, I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions."
Sacks followed the ancient maxim to "know thyself" and, after some trouble in his early years with immoderation and turbulence, he settled into a life where he could be himself and follow his interests in a sustainable way.
2. "Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life. On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight."
People love to talk about having "perspective," but this is easier said than done. That Sacks could view the entirety of his life like this, while still enjoying the particulars, is pretty special.
3. "I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at 'NewsHour' every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming."
I'm going to go ahead and guess that Sacks had the right priorities for much of his life already, having accomplished so much. But he thought there was still room for improvement, and he didn't want to spend any of his time on things that didn't really matter in some way. We could all use a little more of this attitude, even way before we think we'll die.
4. "I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands."
How Sacks could genuinely appreciate the hope of younger generations is truly inspirational. I kind of figured that old people generally became jealous and critical towards those who have taken their place in the circle of life.
5. "When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death."
Sacks knew that individual people are special, but not in the "look at me" way that modernity tends to encourage. Instead, we are special in some more serious, cosmic sense.
6. "Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure."
And quite a fine thinking animal Sacks was. He spent the first part of his life more on the animal side, pushing his body to its limits with competitive weightlifting and substances galore. He spent the rest of his life making sense of it all. Hopefully we can make sense of it all in the end, in our own ways, too.