Thursday, July 14, 2016

Gratitude by Oliver Sacks

During the last few months of his life, Sacks wrote that it is the fate of every human being to be a unique individual to find his own path, to live his own life, and to die his own death.

And that is what he did for eighty years. Like Paul Kalanithi who wrote When Breath Becomes Air, Sacks was a medical doctor (neurology), who was diagnosed with cancer and took to pen and paper to express his thoughts and feeling about life and his own, in particular. And like Kalanithi, he passed away in 2015.

This book is a collection of four of his essays written in the last two years of his life: Mercury, My Own Life, My Periodic Table, and Sabbath.

In December 2014, Sacks found out that his 2003 melanoma of the eye had metastasized to his liver. Within days, he completed his most well-known essay, My Own Life. This essay caused an outpouring of comment and support, which gratified Sacks. He almost didn't publish it, and then sent it in at the last minute to the New York Times just as he was going into life-saving surgery. The NYT published it the next day. His numerous patients of all walks of life and experiences already thought him wonderful, but now the wider world was aware of this thoughtful person in their midst.

Sacks wrote, "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."

It is with this sense of gratitude that Sacks conducted his whole life. From his residency in medicine, through his career in neurology, through his interactions with his patients, to his near-death experience during mountaineering, his writings, and his numerous friends, he lived life in gratitude for what he had been given by others and for what he had been able to give back.

It was very important for him that he'd contributed to the lives of those around him and that he'd lived a good and useful life. It was his wish that when he passed on, he would live in the memories of his friends and through his books, which he hoped would speak to people.

His hope for his death was that like the DNA Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick, he, too, would pass on engaged in his most creative work. And that is what he did. He wrote till the end.

From his essays, I felt that while neurology and caring for his numerous patients was very important to him and he was dedicated to their well-being, it was writing that made his heart sing. It was writing that he remembered best of his life as his life was ebbing away, and it was writing he was engaged in right towards the end.

In his essay Sabbath, he wrote about how he got into writing. He felt it was his mission to tell stories of his patients, their almost unimaginable troubles, and their life histories to the general public.

His essay, My Periodic Table, is his most whimsical. In it he writes about his passion for collecting elements from the Periodic Table. His most prized possession was the highly radioactive (!!), beautifully crystalline Thorium in a little lead casket.

Of being in his 80s before his illness, Sacks wrote, "I begin to feel not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievement and deep ambiguities. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At eighty, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at as earlier age."

And to be cut down by disease just as he began his Renaissance is the tragedy of fate.