A Sentient Being On This Beautiful Planet: Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer

By Last Updated: February 19, 2015Views: 2555

Oliver Sacks, the author of numerous books and essays including Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, is dying. Sacks, now 81, has cancer. He he has multiple metastases in the liver and the progress cannot be halted. He is going to die very soon. In response to this Sacks has written a moving and poignant op-ed in the New York Times. It is a farewell, it is a thank you note, it is extremely human.

As one who has been profoundly afraid of death and one who actively tries to ignore its existence I admire the way Sacks directly approaches it.  He bravely accepts his fate and yet admits his fear. This, like all of his writing, is honest and touching. He reflects upon his life, possibly for the last time, with passion and humanity and gratitude.

Sacks reminds us that our lives are long and our lives are too short. There is so much we do and so much we leave undone. We must remember that our lives are a privilege, just being alive is something that is really amazing if you think about it. And in the end we must remember the truly important things – friendship and love and beauty – and taking care of each other and the place we live. When the time inevitably comes I hope that I am brave and will have words like this:

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

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.

Sacks then goes on to talk about the everyday concerns of life when confronted by death:

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. 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. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

And finally he ends the article with this:

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.

Very profound words indeed.

Read the full piece here.

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