A lot can change in a month, as Oliver Sacks found out recently. The 81-year-old writer and neurology professor went from swimming a mile every day to learning he had terminal, inoperable cancer. He says he’ll be lucky to have a few more months alive.
We often think of news like this as a punch in the gut. It should take the wind out of us, leaving us crumpled on the floor in pain and confusion. Yet Sacks takes a different approach to the news of his impending death: He is grateful.
In his op-ed in The New York Times, Sacks quotes philosopher David Hume (who took his own death at 65 in stride). Hume wrote that his illness didn’t cause him suffering, and that he continued to embrace life to the fullest.
Like Hume before him, Sacks says he wants to enjoy life’s pleasures while he still can.
Sacks makes a salient point in his article when he says:
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.
Although doctors have given him a death sentence, Sacks says he has never felt more alive than he does in this moment. When we strip away the idea that death is a far-off moment in the timeline of life, we revel in every second. Similarly, when our fear of death melts away, we give ourselves permission to experience all that life has to offer without worrying about the long-term consequences.
For some of us, that might mean parachuting out of a plane. For others, it could mean finishing that 500-page novel we’ve always wanted to write, but we’re afraid no one will want to read. Both carry a different risk, but fear prevents many of us from experiencing either of them.
Oliver Sacks says he has always been a man of passion in every regard. Now that he knows death is at his doorstep, he wants to embrace these experiences even more deeply.
What we can learn from Sacks is that death is a fact of life, but it doesn’t need to consume our lives.