A TEMPLATE FOR FACING DEATH

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[Oliver Sacks is a noted British neurologist, Professor of Neurology at the New York University School of Medicine, and author of many books, including “Awakenings”  and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.”  Today he published a piece in the Opinion Pages of The New York Times about learning he has terminal cancer.  I hope when the time comes I can confront my end with such spirited courage. 

The piece is now available to anyone who reads the Times, either on paper or online. But for the many of you who don’t, I’m typing it out here, in part because that will ensure I myself read it again more carefully — but also, and principally, because there are so few helpful road maps for negotiating our way towards what lies ahead for all of us that this piece, heartrending though it is, deserves to be read widely.]

MY OWN LIFE

Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer

by OLIVER SACKS  Feb. 19, 2015

A month ago I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. Although the radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye, only in very rare cases do such tumors metastasize. I am among the unlucky 2 percent.

I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular kind of cancer cannot be halted.

It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”

“I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution,” he wrote. “I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardor as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company.”

I have been lucky enough to live past 80, and the 15 years allotted to me beyond Hume’s three score and five have been equally rich in work and love. In that time, I have published five books and completed an autobiography (rather longer than Hume’s few pages) to be published this spring; I have several other books nearly finished.

Hume continued, “I am…a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social and cheerful humor, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions.”

Here I depart from Hume.  While I have enjoyed loving relationships and friendships and have no real enmities, I cannot say (nor would anyone who knows me say) that I am a man of mild dispositions. On the contrary, I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms and extreme immoderation in all my passions.

And yet, one line from Hume’s essay strikes me as especially true: “It is difficult,” he wrote, “to be more detached from life than I am at present.”

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.

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).

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.

I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

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.

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.

© 2015 The New York Times Company

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33 thoughts on “A TEMPLATE FOR FACING DEATH

    • Thank you so much for the reblog. Re: clicking “like” on posts bearing sad tidings: I believe the consensus on WP seems to be that “like” is for the writing, not the news it conveys. But your reblog is enough “like” for me.

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  1. Thank you Nina for copying this into a post. I saved it to show a forever friend who is going through cancer chemo therapy. Not knowing the outcome, she’ll need support such as these words to “live” the remainder of her life. Christine

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  2. I like the man too but the article did give me pause. Technically we are all in various stages of dying and some of us will have our lives cut short by any number of tragedies. So we return to the question: do we choose to always live like we are dying – as the saying goes – to live fully now, so to speak, and not lead an existence of deferral? Is it only we are certain of our death that we are finally prompted to live it ? Isn’t it too late at that point ? What can one actually fit into the last bits of time ? And I actually think that he should not abandon all of his routines and habits as wasteful or meaningless – maybe he gets some of his best ideas when he is doing “nothing”…. Maybe our routines give us comfort near the end. Maybe i am just overreacting …. Maybe I’m not old enough to appreciate the perspective well enough… I don’t know.

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    • I put up the post, Janet, because people my age (two years past Oliver Sacks actually) think about death quite often, even though we may try not to, and many of the readers of TGOB whose identities are known to me are also past sixty, if not quite as old as I am, and presumably are having the same thoughts. Moreover, all of us older WordPressers have friends who have died, or are confronting death, or are very sick and don’t know what the outcome may be. I therefore found his piece invigorating, if not exactly comforting, and imagined that others might find it so too. (By the way, I don’t believe Sacks said he was about to abandon all his routines and habits; he has simply lost interest in large issues about which he can no longer do anything; the prospect of imminent death focusses the mind intensely on what is most important to one, and the “Newshour” isn’t one of those things for him.) As for your point that death can come to anyone at any age, that is certainly true, although the probability of death increases exponentially as one ages. And yes, it is true that ideally we should all live fully now, or as fully as we can in light of obligations to others (like small children). Looking back, I wish I had appreciated the possibilities in my life much more than I did. But we all do the best we can, and looking back regretfully doesn’t rectify anything. What’s left is the present, whether it’s four hours, or four days, or four weeks, or four months. I’ve mentioned this before but I’ll repeat it here: When someone asked Socrates why he was practicing his flute thirty minutes before he was scheduled to die by poison, he replied: “So that I may learn this song while I can.”

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  3. My mother , aged 98 , was taken into hospital after having a massive stroke and bleeding on the brain. They can’t give the usual clot busting drugs because of the bleed. She , with difficulty, asked my sister for her glasses and her teeth. She isn’t giving up.

    Liked by 1 person

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