“A thinking animal”

Oliver Sacks is dying. I know, I know, we’re all dying. But Dr. Sacks just announced that he has terminal cancer and only months to live, if that. This makes me sad. Inexplicably sad, really. I’m sure I would have been sad if I had heard instead that he had passed away already, but somehow the news that it’s coming soon makes me even sadder.

Dr. Sacks is an interesting gentleman. You’ve probably heard of his work even if you’re not one to follow sciencey things. Robin Williams played a version of him in Awakenings, and apparently did a pretty spot-on job except for the accent. He was also one of the first neurologists to study autism as a medical disorder rather than a behavioral one, and brought the achievements of Dr. Temple Grandin to the public eye in his book An Anthropologist on Mars. It’s a fascinating read. I recommend you read as much of his stuff as you can get your hands on. Also, the episodes of Radiolab that he’s been on are some of my favorites. Just a phenomenal mind. I could listen to him talk about brains for hours.

He put a piece about his prognosis in the New York Times today, and I must say that it’s a little tough to read. A beautiful goodbye letter, basically. There were tears. I like to think that I’m sanguine about the inevitability of death, but I doubt I could write about it like that if it were staring me in the face. A snippet:

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 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.

And isn’t that the point? The point I think a lot of us miss in our time here? To adventure with gratitude. It sounds a bit reductionist, but I feel that my pessimism has morphed into pragmatism as I age, and I’ve begun to see even the most difficult struggles as opportunities to learn something new. Now it’s just a short hop from “opportunity” to “adventure.” I’ll work on it. What fun it could be.

That’s one of the things I so enjoy about Dr. Sacks. When you read his books or listen to him speak, you really get the sense that he approaches every problem or mystery with a genuinely childlike enthusiasm. He giggles a lot. He seems delighted that he can put his efforts toward the question at hand, even knowing that he may not get a satisfactory answer. Because that’s how science works. To dedicate one’s self wholeheartedly to uncertainty is a beautiful way to spend a life.

When I read Dr. Sacks’ books, I’m always impressed at how he doesn’t separate the person from their brain or from their disorder. I like brains, and have read many, many books on their myriad dysfunctions (admittedly, all of the “approachable for laymen” variety). So many of these writers get tunnel vision about their specialty, they don’t seem to consider the human factors in the stories they’re telling. Or if they do, that consideration doesn’t make it onto the page. Often they sound like robots discussing computer parts, rather than people discussing people. Which is unfortunate in any science, but I think is particularly dangerous when talking about brains. Obviously.

Dr. Sacks’ time is limited now in a tangible, quantifiable way that most of us will be lucky to never experience. On the other hand, perhaps that’s a benefit. At 81, maybe it’s better to know than to just wait around, watching your peers drop one by one. I imagine that waiting brings with it a degree of fear. But I’m relatively young and in passable health, so what the hell do I know? I will say this: I’ve been bored a lot lately. Several times just in recent days I’ve caught myself wandering around aimlessly or staring into space. Almost immediately, I have a moment of panic about my mental health, then proceed directly to beating myself up about wasting time. Hours fly by, tick tock tick tock, and I go to bed at night thinking about how I can’t get that day back. Every life is short, every death assured. And yet I sit on my porch and chain smoke and brood like it’s ever going to change anything. What an asshole. We could all be gone at any moment. And while I don’t want to be one of those “be here now” hippies with no long-term goals who just tra-la-las their way through life doing whatever makes their little hedonistic hearts happy, I do think it would be in my best interest to stop assuming that I’ll make it to “someday.” It’s a hubristic assumption, one easily proven wrong. What’s that James Dean quote? “Dream as if you’ll live forever; live as if you’ll die tomorrow.” I’ll shoot for somewhere in the middle.

Meanwhile, go read Dr. Sacks’ books or check out some of his lectures. He really is an amazing guy. I truly hope that these last months of his life are wonderful, and I will be sad when he goes. May you walk out with your head up and your heart full, sir. You will be missed.

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