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 psychology, 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.
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).
Even some silliness. His legacy is extraordinary. His gifts to the field of neurology and our understanding of ourselves, many. His most important lesson to me, however, is that sentence. I, too, hope to straighten my accounts with the world, as well as myself, but also allow for some silliness. To not be afraid of my own mind; to welcome the seemingly unexplainable, the daunting, the things that threaten my tight grip on the world. He’s taught me to trust in nature. To believe in the omniscience of my own body and mind. To believe in the art of healing.
It is the human curse, being reminded of the sanctity of life only when it is threatened, only when we witness its end. Because we think that to always be open, to always be aware, to always be in awe… would kill us. And we’re wrong. We think that to be in a perpetual state of wonder, to always be curious, always want to see what hides behind every closed door, always be communicating with muses, always bask in what is beautiful and boldly face what is not… we think that’s the definition of insanity. We think that if we don’t put the certain knowledge of impending death away in a locked drawer, we’ll be too overwhelmed to live. And we’re wrong.