Oliver Sacks, Mortality and Gratitude

Last week in the New York Times, bestselling author Oliver Sacks wrote that he has mere months to live. At 81 and in otherwise robust health, Sacks learned that a cancer which he thought had been eradicated when first diagnosed nine years ago is back with a vengeance and now cannot be halted.

The New York Times has called Sacks “a kind of poet laureate of contemporary medicine.” An accomplished neurologist and professor, he is the author of numerous bestselling books including fascinating collections of case studies of people suffering from neurological disorders. His book Awakenings was adapted into an Oscar-nominated 1990 film of the same name starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat spawned pop culture offshoots from a chamber opera to plays to movie characters to an indie pop album.

Sacks hasn’t slacked off with advancing age. In the last 15 years alone he has published five books and completed an upcoming autobiography, as well as several other books he claims are nearly completed. He has no intention of letting his death sentence slow him down, either: “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me,” he wrote. “I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”

That’s an inspirational reminder. It is human nature to ignore the fearsome inevitability of our own death unless something like the diagnosis of a terminal disease forces us to contemplate it. And yet it is this very awareness of our mortality that prompts us to strive to live more fully. As the saying goes, nothing quite focuses one’s attention like the prospect of being hanged in the morning.

Sacks is no exception. He wrote that, since his prognosis,

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…

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.

It must be a challenge under such circumstances to respond with anything but panic, regret, denial, anger, some other form of resistance, or a combination thereof. Sacks, on the other hand, confesses to some trepidation about dying but says that his “predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.”

Sacks has lived a longer and fuller life than many, and he has the added benefit (or perhaps curse) of advance notice of the approximate time remaining to him. Sacks finds this to be cause for gratitude, too. Most of us do not know the hour when our turn will come. We could outlive Sacks or die today. That is, or should be, a sobering uncertainty, and by and large we have no control over the outcome.

But what we can control, and Oliver Sacks serves as an inspiring example, is how we spend each moment given to us. There is no time for anything inessential, as he put it, for any of us, whether or not we have yet received our terminal diagnosis. What we do with however much time we are given is what will enable us to face the end of it without panic, regret, and all those other forms of resistance. How we live is what will enable us to cultivate a sense of gratitude for what Sacks calls the “enormous privilege and adventure” of the gift of life.

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