Oliver Sacks

7:15/5:39, 78/93. Podcast
Overslept. Sun’s trying to steal the march on me today. I was mocking the French “philosopher of walking” yesterday for not walking daily, suggesting that he’d do better with a dog; but when I sleep in, this time of year, walking the dog becomes borderline-abusive. Inhumane. Unethical. So I’d better get on with it, soon as I note the birthday of storyteller/neuroscientist/Awakener Oliver Sacks in London, 1933.

He has his detractors but I’m a fan. First noticed him, I think, in 1993 when he participated in a strange symposium with Daniel Dennett, Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Toulmin, Rupert Sheldrake, and Freeman Dyson called A Glorious Accident. So elegant, diffident, measured, but above all humane. And maybe just a little self-aggrandizing. He’s been depicted by Robin Williams in Awakenings, and fictionalized by Richard Powers in The Echo Maker. The way he’s addressed his probably-terminal prognosis is admirable. After quoting David Hume’s anticipated “speedy dissolution” in “My Own Life” last February, he writes:

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

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.

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.

Spoken like a Humean.

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