Oliver Sacks on Death, Destiny, and the Redemptive Radiance of a Life Fully Lived
By Maria Popova
“To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” Montaigne observed in his sixteenth-century meditation on death and the art of living. “The greatest dignity to be found in death is the dignity of the life that preceded it,” the late surgeon and bioethicist Sherwin Nuland wrote half a millennium later in his foundational treatise on mortality.
I am yet to encounter a human being who embodied and enacted these difficult truths more wholeheartedly than Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015).
He confronted death directly, with courageous curiosity and radiant lucidity, in one of his New York Times essays posthumously collected in the small, enormously life-affirming book Gratitude (public library) — that great parting gift which gave us Dr. Sacks’s warm wisdom on the measure of living and the dignity of dying, edited by his partner, the writer and photographer Bill Hayes, and his friend and assistant of thirty years, Kate Edgar.
After learning of his terminal diagnosis, the irreplaceable Dr. Sacks peers into the depths of existence from the bittersweet platform of a long and, suddenly, immediately finite life:
I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.
As he faces the end of his own path — an end he had escaped narrowly decades earlier, when he saved his own life with literature and song — he writes:
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.
Complement the thoroughly transcendent Gratitude with Dr. Sacks on what his beloved aunt taught him about dying with dignity and courage, his enchanting recollection of his largehearted life, and this remembrance of him written the day of his death, then revisit John Updike on writing and death and this wonderful Danish children’s book about making sense of mortality.
Published August 30, 2016