Madelon Sprengnether

Minding Memory

Gratitude: Oliver Sacks and Me

Gratitude is a state of grace -- Oliver Sacks' slim volume takes us there.

Posted Feb 16, 2016

I just finished reading Gratitude, Oliver Sacks’ posthumous collection of essays—a slim volume, which I devoured in one sitting.

This is what Sacks has to say, knowing that his life is coming to an end.

"I cannot pretend I am without fear.  But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude.  I have loved and been loved; I have given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written; I have had intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers."

What Sacks doesn’t say is how he arrived at this state of grace.

I wanted to read this book because I’ve read Sacks’ books (not all but most of them) going back to the beginning of his writing career.  I also wanted to read it because “gratitude” is what I have come to feel about the complicated trajectory of my own life.  In my early seventies, I’m ‘old,’ by most people’s standards, but about ten years younger than Sacks.  I certainly did not feel grateful in my teens, twenties and even my early thirties—nor perhaps did he.  What made the difference?

Judging from his memoir On The Move, Sacks came from a loving family, although his young life was painfully disrupted when he was sent to boarding school at the age of six, to protect him from the London blitz.  Not only was he deeply unhappy about being removed from his family, but also subject to a brutal regime of physical discipline.  This dramatic alteration in his life turned him from reliance on close relationships to a fascination with the world of science.   This is how he describes its impact: “I have tended since early boyhood to deal with loss—losing people dear to me—by turning to the nonhuman.”  “Numbers,” he continues, “became my friends; when I returned to London at ten, the elements and the periodic table became my companions,” concluding stoically: “Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.”

Later, as a nineteen-year-old, he confessed to his father that he liked boys more than girls, a piece of information he asked his father not to share with his mother.  His father betrayed his confidence, and his mother’s judgment was as harsh as any child in a culture/society that regarded homosexuality as criminal might have feared.  She declared: “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.”  

Traumas such as these might have sent anyone into a downward spiral of anger, hatred, self-denigration, or general life-failure.  Sacks did struggle, it seems, for many years to come to an acceptance of himself as ‘different,’ and to realize his true talents and vocation.  He abandoned the Orthodox Jewish beliefs and religious practices of his parents and grandparents, immigrated to the US, and used/abused drugs while also sustaining a day-job as a physician in San Francisco and then in Los Angeles.  A significant change occurred with his move to New York, his beginning a new practice in neurology with neglected patients in hospital wards, and starting to write for publication.  He also quit his drug habit and entered into psychoanalytic treatment, which lasted until the end of his life.  Along the way, he became a celebrated author and formed a loving relationship with his life partner Bill Hayes.

On its surface, my life seems utterly different from Sacks’.  I grew up in a mostly non-observant Catholic family (my dad went to church on Christmas and Easter), in the 1940’s American Midwest.  I was also a ‘girly-girl,’ un-vexed by the gender roles prescribed for my sex at the time.  But my young life, which started out well, took a bad turn when my father died at the untimely age of forty-two.  I was unable to mourn his loss, in part because my mother could not talk about what had happened, much less share her grief.  Like Sacks, I turned to the world of the “nonhuman,” in my case to academic achievement. 

When my mother decided to re-marry, barely five years after my dad’s death, I could not accept her decision.  Instead, I vowed to hate my stepfather and to wish him ill.  When he actually died--just after my graduation from high school--I was overwhelmed with guilt and remorse.  Like Sacks, I abandoned my life as I’d known it, went off to college on the East coast and vowed never to return to the Midwest.  I wanted to make a life of my own—as far away as possible from the one I’d grown up with.

But you take your life history with you wherever you go.  I did not understand this until sometime in my early thirties when I realized that I was on a path to despair.  At this time, I happened on Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and responded powerfully to a single line, spoken by the irrepressible Augie: “I didn’t want to lead a disappointed life.”  Me neither.

I went into psychotherapy.  I can’t say that I suddenly ‘got happy’ or that things have been smooth since, but I do feel that this process of self-reflection (in the presence of an empathic other) helped me to understand the losses I’d suffered as a child and to come to terms with the frailties of the adults who raised me.

Once Sacks began to immerse himself in the lives of his patients who suffered from complex neurological impairments, he developed a new awareness of how challenging life can be—even more painful and difficult than his own.  He never says this outright.  But no one can read his meticulous recreations of his patients’ lives without sensing his profound compassion.  My guess is that his ability to relate to his patients, to hear their stories, and to empathize with their dilemmas and their courage in dealing with them stemmed in part from his growing acceptance of the circumstances of his own life and forgiveness of his parents for their unintended cruelties.

There is no ‘scientific’ basis for understanding Sack’s talent for listening to and conveying his patients’ stories in ways that move others who do not share their neurological impairments, much less the daily physical, spiritual, and emotional challenges of their lives.  Sacks’ riveting case histories, while not focused on himself, attest to an internal transformation of his own.  Despite what he says about turning to the seemingly stable world of the nonhuman, I see him embracing the unpredictable nature of love. 

Judging from his memoir, I would say that Sacks chose the path of attachment.  First by extending his attention to the suffering of his patients—whose difficulties he could name but not cure—and then by extending this care to his aging parents—whose actions he could not alter but accept.  He returned many times to the UK and sustained ties to his scattered family to the end of his life.  He did not undergo a late-life religious conversion but learned to appreciate his parents’ and grandparents’ allegiance to their faith.  The last essay he wrote titled “Sabbath,” details his parents’ observance of this day when he was a child, but emphasizes the meaning to him in later life of a “day of rest.” 

I, too, left the rituals and dogmas of my childhood but did not abandon the mystery that I obscurely perceived in it.  Life, I learned belatedly, through much wise counseling, is not about belief in a certain kind of God or a particular understanding of the afterlife, but about how we attach to those who are responsible for our upbringing, to our own lives, and to others in the world whose stories touch ours. 

Sacks, in part, taught me this.  Through my immersion in his work, I have come to view my life differently, less as series of losses than one of adaptations.  I no longer ‘hate’ my stepfather, nor resent his intrusion into my life.  Rather, I have come to regard him as a complex benefactor—whom I did not and could not love when I knew him, yet as someone whose good will toward me I understand better now.  It was he who believed in my intellectual potential and set me on the course of my future career.  As a civil liberties lawyer who championed women’s rights when few men of his era did and who believed that I could aim for goals as high as I could achieve, he shaped my character and career more than I could begin to comprehend at the time.  What I feel toward him now is not anger, hatred or resentment but gratitude.    

Describing his late-life love for Bill Hayes, Sacks observes: “Deep, almost geological changes had to occur….New needs, new fears, enter one’s life—the need for another, fear of abandonment.”       

Loving, as Sacks understood, exposes us to the devastation of loss.  Yet the decision not to love is a greater tragedy.  It deprives us of the capacity for intimacy, empathy, and compassion that give direction and meaning to our lives.      

Oliver Sacks / used with permission
Source: Oliver Sacks / used with permission