Living a life with meaning

A last lesson from Oliver Sacks

“We have come to medicalize aging” wrote Oliver Sacks when he was nearing the end of his life, as if it “were just one more clinical problem to overcome. However, it is not only medicine that is needed in one’s declining years but life—a life with meaning, a life as rich and full as possible.”

© Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons

What’s especially poignant about that quote is that he wrote it some eight years after being diagnosed with cancer. After that first diagnosis, the cancer went into remission, though it caught up with him again. He continued to write about his life, and living a life with meaning, even after learning that the cancer was back and that there wasn’t going to be another remission. 

Throughout his life Sacks had a way of making us reconsider so many things, beginning with the nature of illness and our responses to it. In his books, including The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, he introduced us to dozens of his patients, all of whom had difficulties, yes, though many strengths as well. In Musicophilia he wrote about a man who, after being struck by lightning, obtained an insatiable urge to play the piano despite the fact that he had never played piano before. In another essay Sacks follows Stephen Wiltshire, an autistic child who is able to draw miraculous cityscapes, rich in detail, entirely from memory.

Yes, his patients had troubles, some tragically so. There’s a victim of a brain tumor unable to remember anything that happened to him since the late 1960s. Still, one of the things that drew so many readers to Sacks’ books was his sense of wonder at the human condition despite the clinical ailments. The people that he profiled, like he himself, experienced the challenge that we all face: to make meaning of our lives, to find and negotiate our place in the world despite whatever tumbles in our way.

In the last years of his life, Sacks increasingly became his own subject in a close consideration of what it means to grow older. In one essay he noted that his father, who lived into his 90s, often said that his 80s was his best decade. “He felt, as I begin to feel,” wrote Sacks at the time of his 80th birthday, “not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective.” He continues: 

"One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together."

Sacks was a teacher, and he was teaching to the last. He was writing, just as P. G. Wodehouse did, right up to the last minute, always curious, searching, and engaged. In Awakenings, his second book (Robin Williams portrayed him in the movie of the same name) he recounted giving L-dopa to a number of patients with encephalitic lethargica, some of whom had been in a catatonic stupor for years or decades. The medical story is a compelling one, though the human story is even more so. Yes, he solved a clinical problem: he woke them up. Other doctors, coming to the same conclusions, would have done the same. But what Sacks did next is telling: he took them dancing. He sang with them. He talked to them, and encouraged them to speak meaningfully with each other. Truly, Sacks never mourned what he or his patients couldn’t do, but rather chose to revel in the life that they were given, making each moment as rich and full as possible. ♦

—Glen Herbert

Oliver Sacks was a physician and author of thirteen books including Awakenings (made into an award-winning film starring Robin Williams), The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Musicophilia, and a memoir, On The Move, published shortly before his death in 2015. Gratitude, a book published posthumously, collects four essays he wrote at the end of his life for The New York Times



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