Oliver Sacks and the Art of Healing

In the middle of writing an entirely different guest post at Julie and Kathy’s request, I received news that Oliver Sacks has terminal cancer. For those unfamiliar with his work, he is a neurologist and writer, famous for books that contain incredibly interesting case studies of some of his patients. The 1990 film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, called Awakenings, was based on his book of the same name. It recounted his efforts to help patients suffering from a debilitating disease called encephalitis lethargica, which rendered them effectively comatose, to regain neurological function. Sacks dedicated the book to W.H. Auden, and included these lines from Auden’s poem, The Art of Healing: 

Papa would tell me,
is not a science,
but the intuitive art
of wooing Nature.

I know, through his books, (most notably, Hallucinations The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Musicophilia) that Oliver Sacks mastered “the intuitive art of wooing Nature.” I know this intuitively. While his realm of study and practice is neurology, and the kind of healing Kathy, Julie, and all those with similar stories, must engage in has more to do with OSackspsychology, his insights are no less relevant. He is an incredibly intelligent, accomplished scientist and clinical professor. His appeal as an author is an uncanny ability to explain complex neurological concepts and conditions in a way that is interesting and accessible to the layperson. He is able to demystify sanity and insanity both, and plunge into depths of the mind in a way that reminds one of a mountain climber scaling a steep cliff. But what has always struck me more profoundly than all of that, are his relationships with people.

In his NYTimes essay, “My Own Life: Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer”, he writes,  “…I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions.” This is what I love most about him. I suppose it’s what I love most in all humans. Their humanity– unmasked, untamed, untethered. I love that Oliver Sacks is a man of Science without a white coat. I appreciate his ability to listen in a way that makes you feel what you have to say is all that matters in the world. I appreciate that his understanding of the workings of the mind serves his humanity, and not the other way around.

He writes:

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).

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