Gratitude: Oliver Sacks On A Life Well-Lived

I spent the morning at Barnes and Noble, drinking sixteen warm ounces of Americano, writing poetry, and listening to Sawyer Fredericks and Needtobreathe. Perhaps I should have prefaced that last confession by stating I am neither sixteen-years-old nor particularly religious, but I challenge anyone to listen to either and not be moved. The roads beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows are white with recent snowfall, ice has caked on the asphalt, cars stop and go with equal difficulty; yet the masses are enduring the poor conditions to make last minute purchases as they prepare for meals and gatherings of thanks and gratitude. As I readied myself to leave my peaceful table and step into that chaos to tackle my own list of procrastinated items, I glanced at the new releases table as I normally do. On the table’s corner I found a plainly designed thin book titled Gratitude, written by Oliver Sacks. Picking it up, I found myself a quiet corner in the book shop and read the four short essays between the hard bound cover.

Oliver Sacks is a physician, author, and professor of neurology at NYU School of Medicine. He has written several books and numerous essays. This book brings together four essays written over the last two years of his life which were previously published in the New York Times.In the first essay, Oliver writes about turning eighty. In it he reminisces on the life he lived, of which he is most grateful, but there are, as well, underlying hints of sadness for loss of time—for not having lived as fully as one could. Though Oliver lived a life richer than most, when faced with the nearing end of that life, perhaps one can’t help but to reflect on the things he or she should or could have done.

I am grateful that I have experienced many things—some wonderful, some horrible—and that I have been able to write a dozen books, to receive innumerable letters from friends, colleagues, and readers, and to enjoy what Nathaniel Hawthorne called “an intercourse with the world.”

He goes on to apologize for wasting too much time, being as “agonizingly shy” at eighty as he was at twenty, for not learning other languages, or traveling and experiencing other cultures as much as he wished. He acknowledges age decays a man, but that one may still often feel full of life if he continues his pursuits.

Perhaps, with luck, I will make it, more or less intact, for another few years and be granted the liberty to continue to love and work, the two most important things, Frued insisted, in life.”

The remaining three essays were written after learning a rare form of melanoma had metastasized to his liver. Despite the diagnosis and realization that his time on earth is coming to an end, Oliver remains optimistic in his writing.

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.”

Beyond common themes of love and work shared throughout these essays, Oliver writes about connection, nature, and physical movement. Though he faced his own struggles with prejudices, and was ostracized from his family, Oliver clearly longed for, and valued, community and friendship. He also had a love for the Elements, a fondness for walks in nature, and at eighty-one was still swimming a mile a day.With the reality of his imminent death setting in, Oliver narrows his energy on the essential:

There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work, and my friends.”

And upon reflection finds gratitude:

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 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.”

My hope is that I can steal this beautiful summation of a life well-lived when my journey comes to it’s end. That I may live a life full of both suffering and joy, and upon facing life’s greatest challenge summon the mindset to squeeze all that remains and leave my own love and work, thoughts and words.

Oliver died this past August at age eighty-two. After reading this short book, I have an overwhelming feeling of gratitude toward a man I happened to meet over a cup of coffee in the book shop. A man who did what he felt called to do despite the obstacles and adversities laid before him. A man setting an example for all during this holiday season; love, work, and be grateful.

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