Oliver Sacks taught us all how to age like a badass

GettyImages 88194654
Dr. Oliver Sacks. Chris McGrath / Getty

Ageing, as you may have heard, sucks. 

It’s considered to be a pathology, a disease to be cured. Perhaps that’s why we take the people who are aged and quarantine them in nursing homes.

This is not a new trend: the Ancient Greeks worshipped youth as much as we do today. Surely they would have had their own stable of Vine stars. 

But every once in a while, a person who has fully embraced their humanity comes around to show us not to hide from age, but investigate the beauty of growing older. 

Dr. Oliver Sacks, who left his corporeal form on Sunday, was one of those great souls.

He fully earned the title “polymath”: dude was not only a gifted neurologist, but also one of the finest science communicators the world has yet produced; his writing revealed how deeply human medicine is at its core, at least when it’s practiced by a genius. 

But back to the age thing.

Dr. Sacks was stunningly handsome as a young man. 

 Then, like anyone else who survives their youth, he started to get old. 

And yet, he become even more glow-y. 

Just as he relayed the investigations of his patients’ relationships with the world in “Awakenings,” “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat,” and other books, Sacks seemed to take the same sweetness to the path of his own life. As Adrienne Lafrance at the Atlantic so aptly observed, Dr. Sacks always seemed “propelled by joyful curiosity” — both in his clinical work and in his explorations of his own life, of his own path. 

In 2013, Dr. Sacks was about to turn 80 years old. In a memorable column for the New York Times, he wrote that his eighth decade provided “not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective.” 

He continued: 

At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60.

I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.

Rather than seeing age is a loss of life, Sacks modelled how it can be an accumulation of experience. 

And when he received the grim news early this year that he was going to be consumed by cancer, he did not shrink from it; he did some of his best writing, including all of us readers in his voyage to the end of life. 

“This does not mean I am finished with life,” he wrote. “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.” 

Looking into that unknown, Sacks was courageous in the oldest, truest meaning of the word. Corage is an old French word that draws from the Latin, cor, or heart. So to be courageous is to be “fully hearted,” you could say, to live not only from one’s head but from the center of one’s chest. 

All the way until he met his end, Dr. Sacks worked with his whole heart. In so doing, he included all of us in his journey. And with it defanged, if only slightly, the terror that comes from the knowledge that one day, each of us, too, will have to investigate our own conclusions.





NOW WATCH: This ‘Mission Impossible’ behind-the-scenes footage of a 53-year-old Tom Cruise hanging off a plane is terrifying