Ever wonder what makes an extraordinary life? Few have been more so than that of Oliver Sacks, bestselling author, world traveler, prominent homosexual, and undoubtedly the most famous neurologist of our time. He was also a man who always seemed to be enjoying himself to the utmost. He died this past weekend at 82, of eye cancer that had metastasized throughout his body. His was the very definition of a life well lived.
As we look back and celebrate this incomparable man, we can learn some lessons from his life that can enhance our own:
1. Courage makes life worth living.
Faced with choices again and again Sacks took the braver path, for instance when he emigrated from London to California as a young doctor, or went mountaineering alone at 41 (and nearly paid the ultimate price when he had to run from a bull and had a bad fall). Well into old age, he used to swim a mile every day near City Island in the Bronx where he lived. “You seem to have one strange adventure after another,” his aunt told him while he was in the hospital recovering. If anyone ever says that to me, I’ll know I’m on the right track.
2. Obsessions are good for the soul.
“I am very tenacious, for better or worse,” Sacks wrote in A Leg to Stand On, his book about the accident and its aftermath. “If my attention is engaged, I cannot disengage it…It makes me obsessional.”
It was this obsessional quality that led him to try the new drug L-dopa to catatonic patients at a Bronx hospital, to astonishing effect that he later recounted in his book Awakenings, later a movie starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. He loved practicing neurology so much that well after becoming an international celebrity he kept right on seeing patients. Find a profession that you love half as much as Sacks loved his, and you’ll have one ingredient in place for a very happy life.
3. Do the unexpected.
What would you expect a young doctor from London to do while settling into the United States? Entering a body-building contest or riding with the Hell’s Angels might not be the first answers that come to mind, but Sacks did those things and more. Granted, it was the 1960s. Still, Sacks’ willingness or maybe even eagerness to do what others in his position would not was a big part of what made his life so uncommon. Every time we defy expectations and step outside a predictable life, we open the door to uncounted possibilities.
4. Be honest with yourself and everyone else.
Sacks laid his life open for all to see, from his homosexuality, to his uneven relationship with Judaism, to his oddball obsession with the Periodic Table of Elements. When he learned that he was dying, he did the same, writing a piece about his imminent death for The New York Times, less than a month after getting his diagnosis. He followed it up with two more essays as the disease progressed. His final piece, a moving meditation on the Sabbath, was published two weeks before he died. In it he wrote, “I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life–achieving a sense of peace within oneself.”
5. Don’t waste time on regret.
A year and a half before his diagnosis, Sacks wrote an essay on “The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding.)” In it he expressed a few regrets but they were pretty trivial: That he hadn’t learned to overcome his shyness; that he spoke only English. If he’d chosen to, he could have wallowed in a lot more regret, for instance his decades of celibacy. He didn’t find true love until he was in his 70s, something that could easily have led to self-pity, especially once he learned he was dying. Instead, he wrote this:
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.
6. Tell a good story.
I’ve come across a lot of wonderful book titles, but The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat has to be one of the best. (The word geek in my loves that “mistook.” It’s so much better than if it had been “The Man Who Thought his Wife Was a Hat” or some such.
Other neurologists have occasionally complained that Sacks was more famous than he deserved to be because he had contributed few breakthroughs to their field. But his great talent was not in research but in bringing an arcane medical area to life and telling his patients’ stories so that lay people could be touched by them. He was a superlative wordsmith and storyteller, and therein lay his great power.
7. Never lose your sense of wonder.
A month or two before he died, Sacks visited friends in the country and, far from the city and its lights, was able to see a skyful of stars that suddenly made him feel the briefness of his life, and likely of all human life, in the way the great beauties of the universe tend to do. We used to see that same blanket of stars from our yard in Woodstock, where the sky was dark enough to see the milkiness of the Milky Way. It was like looking up at the stars through a cloud hazy enough to be translucent, only what looked like a cloud itself was made up of hundreds of billions of stars.
Sacks died in Manhattan, so he didn’t fulfill his wish to see those stars in his last moments. But his ability to appreciate the beauty in the world around him, and in life itself, may be his most important gift to the world he’s left behind. Here’s how he ended the essay where he revealed that he was dying:
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.
It’s a privilege and an adventure that we all share.