Oliver Sacks died today. I am so sad about this, as I feel I have come to know him a little over the past year; reading his memoir “On the Move. A Life”, listening to various interviews he has given over the years and enjoying his contributions to the NY Times opinion pages. It is likely you have heard of him too (he wrote many books, including ‘The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” and “Awakenings”, which was made into a movie with Robin Williams playing a fictional version of Sacks). But in case you are unfamiliar, let me share a bit…
At the time of his death at age 82, he was a professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine, where he continued to see a small group of patients. He was brilliant in an atypical way, extraordinarily curious and a prolific writer. His approach to just about everything in his life – motorcycles, weightlifting, swimming, writing and especially exploring the brain – was one that could be described quite accurately as ‘obsessive’. As I learned more about him, I began to appreciate his enviable approach to engaging with the world. He seemed to be able to observe the spaces we inhabit in a broad, 360° way, while simultaneously looking deep and high. This allowed him to connect disparate dots and bring forth theories, perspectives and ideas that provided insight into many unknowns, but especially how our brain works, or doesn’t. What set him apart from many medical explorers though was his insistence that what gives a diagnosis meaning is that it is attached to a real person. This comes across clearly in his writings and his interviews. He seemed to have extrasensory abilities to see ‘who was in there’, particularly with patients who were unable to move or communicate in ways that he could understand. The compassion that accompanied his work was palpable.
Upon learning that he had a terminal cancer, he wrote a moving piece in the NY Times that you can read here – www.nytimes.com/2015/02/19/opinion/oliver-sacks-on-learning-he-has-terminal-cancer/html?_r=1
He was an amazing storyteller and had a way with words that drew you in, and what I really loved in this essay was this:
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.
He was seizing the time he had left to attend to the things that, if we are honest with ourselves, all believe to be the most important. (Perhaps an encouragement to those of us who don’t currently have a terminal diagnosis to step it up a bit?)
Oliver Sacks spent his life deliberately coming to know himself and the world around him, as is evidenced by this statement of gratitude that completed his essay:
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 intention in writing this blog today was simply to share my thoughts and feelings about the passing of someone I admired greatly. If there is a message in here, it is only that which arises uniquely in your mind after reading it. I hope it is good.