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 writes and readers.Oliver Sacks
In My Dreams
by Stevie Smith
In my dreams I am always saying goodbye and riding away,
Whither and why I know not nor do I care.
And the parting is sweet and the parting over is sweeter,
And sweetest of all is the night and the rushing air.
In my dreams they are always waving their hands and saying goodbye,
And they give me the stirrup cup and I smile as I drink,
I am glad the journey is set, I am glad I am going,
I am glad, I am glad, that my friends don’t know what I think.
I was watching the documentary on Oliver Sacks on American Masters on PBS this week and remembering my enjoyment of reading his regular magazine columns in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. I have read most of his books that he wrote and have always enjoyed the humanity he brought to his unique perspective on the intersection of neurology and the individual. What his final book, a biography, along with the documentary reveals, is his own humanity and the events that shaped him as a person, a scientist and as a writer.
What is remarkable about the documentary is that it peels back a protective layer of privacy into his personal life and creative writing process that I wasn’t aware during the decades that I read his work. Oliver Sacks writing is very much the product of a team that surrounds him, from a long time collaboration with a ghost writer/editor, his publisher, fellow writers who shared feedback and encouragement, other scientists, but most importantly his patients, whose stories and lives and diseases he chronicles with the focus always on the person, not just their physical manifestations of their illness. Oliver Sacks ideas on consciousness, creativity, memory and writing are remarkable in the their simplicity in some ways with his awareness on what makes us the same, not how we are each dissimilar, while recognizing that each and every one of us have a unique story, a singular life to live.
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.
This pandemic has forced many to think about our mortality and our lives. We have had to re-invent the ways in which we work and interact with the world, ways we see ourselves as productive, ways in which we relax, entertain ourselves. It has drawn a very harsh boundary around what we think of as our inner circle and the rest of the world. I fear that at a time that this worlds need to to band together collectively more than ever to solve nearly insurmountable problems that these past 18 months will forever alter the path of three generations of global human thought for most individuals in the wrong direction; away from an idea of shared sacrifice for the collective good and towards an over protective individualism. I fear that in our forced isolation of social distancing, the world has become a world of outsiders, people are something to be avoided and if we are not careful, feared. This new pandemic mindset of avoidance and individualism is one more rung on the ladder of challenges we shall have to overcome and climb over. I am reminded by Oliver Sacks example to look at the humanity of each individual not our collective and individual pathologies. See each other as singular gifts while mirroring back to us the parts of us that we see in ourselves. To err is to be human and to be ill is to be mortal. Can we take something good from this pandemic, an acceptance of illness as an inseparable part of being alive and focus on a supportive form of community that helps each of us on our journey.
by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894)
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill