Several years ago I had a conversation with one of my then-colleagues (now a doctor) during which I told him, somewhat wistfully, that in another life I would have loved to become a neurologist. A few days later he presented me with two books: “Phantoms in the Brain” by V.S. Ramachandran and “The Man who mistook his Wife for a Hat” by Oliver Sacks. Both were astounding, but Sacks’ book in particular really brought home to me the incredibly delicate nature of our brains, and how we live balanced as if on a neurological knife-edge, the slightest slip from which can cause chaos. I’ve read a number of his books since, ending with “Gratitude”: the final thoughts of a dying man.
The book is incredibly brief but I didn’t mind that as it meant I could take in everything in one sitting. It’s also a strange contradiction in that the author doesn’t actually talk about that much – and yet at the same time he talks about everything. At least he talks about everything that truly matters, the things that it is perhaps only possible to understand as one approaches death. It is with the unique clarity of a dying man that he tells us his greatest joy is simply that he has been alive in this beautiful world. For this man, who has studied the biological source of human consciousness for most of his life, the mere fact of being a self-aware, thinking being is a wondrous thing, an “adventure” as he sees it. It is impossible not to be humbled by the positivity and acceptance demonstrated by someone who was composing this so close to his death. That’s not to say that Sacks comes across as a superhuman spiritual guru: he admits that he is sometimes afraid of what the moment of death will be like and also acknowledges that there are things he would have liked to have done, and feels he should have done, while he had the chance. But, he says, he will keep seeking out new experiences and accumulating more knowledge until such time as he can no longer physically do so. It’s this determination to live as full a life as possible that inspired me most out of all the sentiments conveyed in these essays. I’m aware that, like countless others, I have a tendency to let the days slip by and put things off because I’m a bit tired, or in a bad mood or simply because I live under the assumption that there will always be another day; the notion that a day will eventually come that will be our last is an almost impossible concept to grasp.
“Gratitude” marks the passing of a genuinely gifted individual who not only possessed an extraordinary intellect but also an ability to share his ideas and discoveries in a way that made them accessible and fascinating to us all. This last work deserves to be read not only by those who have enjoyed his work over the years but by everyone – for I’m sure deep down we’d all aspire to end our days thinking a little bit more like him.