What Oliver Sacks taught us about leading a rich, deep, and productive life

Oliver Sacks passed away at his home on the morning of August 30 at the age of 82. He was an acclaimed author and neurologist.

But to many he was much more: an inspiration and a humanist who faced the world with courage — someone who followed his curiosity about the brain and mortality, finding mysteries and beauty that he then shared with the rest of us.

There’s so much to read and learn from everything Sacks wrote (here are a couple collections of some of his work), but in his writings as he approached death, we can learn what it meant to him to “live in the richest, deepest, most productive way.”

Upon learning that he had terminal cancer, Sacks wrote:

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.

When he knew there was little time left, what mattered to him was focusing on himself, his work, and his friends — though he expected those with the capacity to take care of the issues that matter deeply to the world to do so. (“I feel the future is in good hands,” he wrote.)

The brilliant storyteller talked of his own life with more openness than ever before in his last year. In December of 2014, even before he knew his cancer had metastasized, he published his memoir, “On the Move: A Life.”

The neurologist who was the inspiration for Robin Williams’s character in “Awakenings” talked openly about riding motorcycles to the Grand Canyon with the Hell’s Angels, weight-lifting competitions in California, and — as he wrote in The New York Times just a couple weeks ago — his sexuality, for which his Orthodox mother had declared him an “abomination” at age 18:

I had been able, for the first time in my life, to make a full and frank declaration of my sexuality, facing the world openly, with no more guilty secrets locked up inside me.

Earlier that year he travelled to Israel with his partner Bill Hayes, reversing a decision that he’d made 60 years ago to not return there (for reasons both related to politics and his own identity). He went to celebrate the 100th birthday of his cousin. “It was purely a family visit,” he wrote after spending time with his cousins. “I felt embraced by my family in a way I had not known since childhood.”

Sacks valued honesty, family, self, work, and friends; he loved deeply and passionately (as he wrote of when he fell in love with Hayes, “(for God’s sake!) I was in my 77th year”); he described himself as having “extreme immoderation in all my passions.”

He lived a rich, deep, and productive life. Doing so, he found life to be worthwhile.

At the end, in that last New York Times essay, this explorer of the brain and of humanity wrote of the feeling that comes after one realises that they have done their work:

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, 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. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

Rest in peace, Oliver.

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