Essays of the Dying: Neurologist Oliver Sacks

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Oliver Wolf Sacks, CBE (born 9 July 1933) is an American-British neurologist, writer, and amateur chemist who is Professor of Neurology at New York University School of Medicine. Between 2007 and 2012, he was professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University, where he also held the position of “Columbia Artist”. Before that, he spent many years on the clinical faculty of Yeshiva University‘s Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He also holds the position of visiting professor at the United Kingdom’s University of Warwick.[1] 

Sacks is the author of numerous best-selling books,[2] including several collections of case studies of people with neurological disorders. His 1973 book Awakenings, an autobiographical account of his efforts to help victims of encephalitis lethargica regain proper neurological function, was adapted into the Academy Award-nominated film of the same name in 1990 starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. He and his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain were the subject of “Musical Minds“, an episode of the PBS series Nova. [ from Wikipedia]

In a recent essay in the New York Times, “My Own Life,” Sachs announced that he has terminal cancer.

A month ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver … now I am face to face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted.

It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776.

I have devoted a previous post to Hume’s courage in the face of death, and this line from Hume particularly resonates with Sachs: “It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at present.”  Here is the rest of the brief essay in full.

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.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

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.

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. 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.

I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. 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.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my 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.

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.

My Thoughts

When I think of all the athletes, soldiers, financiers, tycoons, actors, celebrities, and all the others who garner so much adulation from our culture, and compare them with the scientists who work in obscurity to shed a little light on our ignorance, I am ashamed that so many care more for the former than the latter.

I thank Professor Sachs for a lifetime of beneficial work in the service of humanity, and for his beautiful New York Times essay which exemplifies his intellectual and moral virtue. Goodbye Professor.

The nations wax, the nations wane away;
In a brief space the generations pass,
And like runners hand the lamp of life
One unto another. ~ Lucretius

[Books by Oliver Sacks]

On the Move: A Life

The Mind’s Eye

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales

A Leg to Stand On

Hallucinations

Oaxaca Journal

Awakenings

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Revised and Expanded Edition

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