Oliver Sacks

Who is Oliver Sacks?

The author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and many other books on neurology and psychiatry, Oliver Sacks, M.D., has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He estimates himself having a couple more months. But like living his life, he’s determined to leave the world with a roar, passionately, and savouring every moment.

I grew teary reading his article in the New York Times. It wasn’t fully sadness, but rather a looming nostalgia that hasn’t quite yet arrived. It’s not often that you hear about a prominent figure discussing their death with such candor before the event. Perhaps I was overwhelmed by his exemplary living – myself feeling very far from what he has achieved in a lifetime. He spent many decades researching, writing and sharing, enriching those around him with his neurological observations and giving much back to the scientific community and laymen alike. I loved reading his books and recently, in his latest autobiography, enjoyed learning about his journey to becoming who he is today: from his Oxford days in Britain to his doctorhood and research in the United States. He is a prolific writer. A keen observer. A brilliant mind. To me he has always been the diligent doctor/neurologist, empathetic to his patients and ever the engaging narrator. His books, though not self-help but scientific in context, helped us help ourselves. Little did I know that in his youth he also spent an ample amount of time touring the United States and Canada, often on his motorbike, experiencing North America’s nature and meeting people on the road. His autobiography only adds to the completeness of his life story, shedding light to his professional development and his personal struggles. I don’t know him, but want to be like him in my old age should I be fortunate enough to live long. Still giving, still creating, still learning. It would be a shame for the world to lose him.

Irvin Yalom, a doctor psychiatrist whose books I equally well love, said that those who most fear death are those who haven’t lived a fulfilling life. Death anxiety haunts us all, even if it’s well buried in the subconscious mind. The best way to avert death anxiety, is to fight it by living each day to the fullest. Oliver Sacks mentioned in his NYT article that naturally, he is scared in the face of death. But not enough to deter him from appreciating all that he’s been given, and was able to give. In his final days, he wants to focus on deepening those relationships that matter to him most, and see parts of the world he hasn’t yet seen. According to Irvin Yalom’s theory, Oliver Sacks shouldn’t be too afraid to die – he lived an intensely fulfilling life, without too many regrets.

We take life for granted way too much than we should. In our materialistically rich societies, we often ponder on our have nots and brood over our misfortunes. All too easy is it to entertain the notion of ending one’s life when the going gets tough. I speak for my own city, the city of skyscrapers, where reading about people jumping to their deaths is a part of everyday life. Not as a disrespect to those who suffer from severe depression and have struggled with the thought of suicide – such cases call for professional help and support – but we as a society need to rethink what we deem as important to life, and re-evaluate what makes life meaningful.

In my culture there is an excessive emphasis on building wealth, buying expensive things, living in pretty apartments. It’s not about doing what you love or giving back – rather, life is about making the most money in the shortest possible time – a very me-centric (or extendedly, family-centric) culture. The rich and poor gap is one of the worst in the world, and not too much emphasis is placed on helping those less fortunate. All too often is happiness tied to wealth and success, and depression tied to the lack of such. “Where there is life, there is hope”, said Stephen Hawking. Be it the religious or the secular, life is sacred. It’s a miracle that we’re here at all, either from an evolutionary standpoint or a creationist standpoint. As long as we have breath, there is something worthwhile we can do with our lives and give back to society. Like Oliver Sack’s life – life should be about building meaningful relationships, lifelong learning, finding passion in a field of work, adding to human knowledge, enriching the lives of people around you, striving for a better world. It should be less about becoming rich as an end in itself, and more about making the world better than the one we were born into. Oliver Sacks, in his own way, achieved this, adorning the world with his writing and observational findings, opening our minds to the minds of others. I celebrate his achievements and am grateful for his books. I respect him much more so than the local tycoons who gather a god-like adoration in this city merely because of their wealth.


Feature image: http://www.oliversacks.com

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7 comments on “Oliver Sacks

  1. Death is almost unspoken of in my family too. Along with the birds and the bees, it’s pretty much a taboo subject and if someone brings it up at the dining table, someone else with change the topic. Maybe it’s something to do with being afraid of the unfamiliar – no one really knows what happens to us or our “spirit” once we take our last breaths. Many Asian cultures are taught to think practical, earning their way through life to prepare themselves to be financially secure…so when it comes to thinking of something so ambiguous to death, we shy away from the subject. I don’t know if this makes sense, but that’s what I think and how I see it in my Chinese Malaysian family.

    In the more general sense, I agree with what you say about Oliver Sacks and the whole notion of not living a fulfilled life, and that going some way to us fearing death. We don’t want to leave behind what we’ve never finished, or we don’t want to go away being seen as a failure. Maybe it’s a self-esteem thing. Whatever the reason, we really should be focusing on the present and embracing the pieces that we have, and make the most of them.

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  2. Hi Mabel, it’s true that death is something that is difficult to talk about. Very interesting that your Chinese Malaysian family doesn’t speak openly about it – because in certain Asian cultures, it’s very much in your face! Like the temples that offer incense to the dead, or the Kwan God that prevents evil and death from entering the home or office, to the elaborate funeral ceremonies that discuss and play out the afterlife in colourful detail. I think it depends on who in my family – some talk about it way too much, and I have the urge to shake them and tell them to focus on their lives instead of their future death; while others are so afraid to discuss it that it very much becomes taboo, almost handicapping to life itself. I agree that it’s the unknown that makes death scary and unthinkable. Added with science and technology today, we see how very very small we are in the vastness of the expanding universe – which can either prompt us to really appreciate life, recognising how miraculous we made it this far in life from evolution, becoming sentient; or from a creationist viewpoint, appreciate the graceful hand of God giving us life, breath and thought; or on the contrary, make us think that our lives don’t matter that much – because with the end of one life, the universe will hardly notice. Much like nature, the birds and the bees, reproducing, then dying off quietly, everyday, without causing any commotion. It’s observant that you mentioned self-esteem – yes, I very much agree it’s a self-esteem thing too. Perhaps how much our self-esteem plays into dictating how we live life is also tied with how important we view the self in relation the rest of the universe.

    I think Irvin Yalom has a pretty good balance of recognising the inevitability of death, and living life well to counter that knowledge which, if it becomes overly present in the conscious, will debilitate most. But yes – I agree – in any case, we SHOULD focus on the present and on live our lives to the best of our ability!

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  3. I’ve enjoyed Oliver Sacks’ insightful writing over the years, but have never heard of Irvin Yalom. Thanks for the introduction – I shall go off in search of his writing. What he says about the fear of death reflects some of my thoughts on the subject. If we treat this life as the only one that we can ever be absolutely certain we’re ever going to have, then we should do it justice by living full ones.

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    • I’d suggest starting with “Love’s Executioner” – a quick and entertaining read which has a couple of stories that will likely stay with you for a long while – for me it did. His most recent book, “The Gift of Therapy”, is written for junior psychiatrists but I found it equally insightful to the layperson, especially for understanding universal human needs that unite us all. It has also shed light to people’s (and my own) actions and insecurities. Themes Irvin (thanks for the correction!) Yalom discusses are applicable to everyone – despite him writing about real cases from his practice. I absolute agree – this given life is the one shot we’re sure to have a go at – so we ought to cherish it.

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