Thank You, Oliver Sacks

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

Only 6 months ago Oliver Sacks wrote those words when he announced he has terminal cancer.

Now, he has passed.

It’s difficult to express my sadness for an inspiration of this magnitude. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was special in many ways. For one, it was penned by the brilliant hand of Mr Sacks so its prose was impeccable and rhythmic. More importantly, he focused on the humanity of his patients more than any one I’ve ever read or spoken too. I felt a connection with many of them and their condition somehow became less important the more I read.

They weren’t freak-shows, idiot savants or the terribly unlucky who society can do nothing for. They were people with interests, motivations and personality. Sacks spent time with the person rather than just their condition.

In his announcement of terminal cancer, he wrote that he feels intensely alive and feels sudden focus and clarity. The distractions have fallen away as he hopes to focus on himself, his friends and his work. An amazing thing for some one who is face to face with death.

Now he is gone, I want to say thank you once more. Thank you for your writings. Thank you for your crystal clear humanity. Thank you for giving your readers strength during your most difficult time.

Thank you, Oliver Sacks. It’s been an enormous privilege.


My Own Life – Oliver Sacks on Learning he has terminal cancer 

Oliver Sacks dies aged 82

 

August Reading List

If anyone wants some books to read, here are a few of the best books I’ve read in the past month or two:

  • The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver Sacks. 

This book gave insights into personal identity that were both unexpected and humanising.

Many people have heard of the titled case where a man has a neurological disorder which means he loses the ability to recognise faces and ends up thinking his wife is a hat. Many of the other cases presented by Sacks are sometimes as comical but more importantly, he does a brilliant job of making every person he sees a real person. It’s surprisingly easy to just see them as  the unfortunate or people with super abilities (cue all the documentaries about savants).

He gets to know his patients and views them much more holistically than a mere diagnosis or popular documentary might.

Amazon.

  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

I wrote in my journal that this was a ‘funny, absurd, entertaining and astonishing depiction of war in WWII’. The more I think about the book, the more I laugh.

The book mainly follows Yossarian who doesn’t want to fly any more missions because he doesn’t want to die. Yet, everything around him seems to force him to fly more like the infamous catch-22 which means regardless of the scenario, he has to fly. For example, he’s a good pilot so is told to fly more. When he flies, he evades enemy fire with great urgency because he doesn’t want to die. Because of this, he’s seen as a good pilot that should fly more.

It may take a while to understand the humour but I found it helpful to imagine them as characters in a sitcom. Many jokes are carried across chapters with seamless ease. The characters are ridiculous and enjoyable. The style is incomparable to any book I’ve read recently.

Nothing else has made me laugh more about some of the worst parts of history.

Amazon.

  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote 

This details the murder of the Clutter family in 1964, Kansas by the Perry Smith and Dick Hickock.

To describe the book, I’d call it a non-fiction story. It’s very immersive and quite easy to forget that it isn’t a complete fiction. If I had to compare this to another book I’ve read before it’d be To Kill a Mockingbird. Not for the content but for the overall feel. The court case at the end of the book was one of the best chapters of any book that I’ve had the pleasure of reading. I felt as if I was sitting in the audience of the trial.

The only thing I had against the whole book was the length but that might be a comment on my concentration rather than the length.

Amazon.

A final note

I said nearly two years ago that I’m going to review Earth Abides. I never finished it. I gave it to a friend and she didn’t finish it.

That’s all I’ll say about it.

If you liked it and found it helpful, the share links are below :)

Who Would I Be?

‘Suppose you could take away the tics,’ he said. ‘What would be left? I consist of tics – there’d be nothing left.’

Witty Ticcy Ray

Who would I be without my disability?

Perhaps an odd question to ask. The answer should be ‘a better and happier person’.

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. I found myself resonating with Witty Ticcy Ray – I might be nothing without it.

For most of my teens, I’ve had to deal with pain, walking problems, and more recently, the resultant emotional fallout. In the most developmental stages of my life, I’ve grown up with it and lived my life around it.

To some, it’s the same as growing up with a favourite sports team or book series. A lot of the conversations you have with friends and family are around this favourite thing. For me, my habits and motivations have been moulded around my disability.

It’s difficult enough to answer the question of who I am right now let alone who I would be without a life-changing event.

A simpler question to ask is: Would I be a better person?

At first, I thought the answer should be a resounding ‘YES!’ I’d be pain-free. I’d read more. I’d have more fun with friends. I’d live without needless discomfort. I’d still be able to play sports. I wouldn’t have had operations 2 operation in a year. I wouldn’t even have to grapple with this question.

Yet, there was some resistance to my answer. I don’t know if I would be a better person.

I tend to view my disability as a negative thing and wish it gone every day. I have never thanked fate for my problem. Still, my answer to the question was not confident.

My hesitation came from the good things that have happened as a result of my disability.

I probably wouldn’t have become interested in personal development as early as I did. One of my motivations for starting a blog was to see how I could improve life despite my problems. In fact, none of my readers knew I had a disability until I wrote Living with Chronic Pain.

It’s unlikely I’d be as concerned about the welfare of other disabled students. In turn, that’s probably affected how I treat people more generally.

Would I be interested in meditation and mindfulness? These are two things I am forever grateful I started.

My disability has shaped me in some good ways. Would I still have those good qualities without it?

If I say I wouldn’t be a better person, does that mean my disability is a good thing? How can I reconcile that with my efforts to get rid of it?

If my disability is a good thing, why name it a disability?[1] Surely everyone faces some discomfort and this is just my personal one.

If I can’t call it a disability, what has been the source of all my discomfort and frustration?

Currently, I’ve asked many questions and given few answers. When I started thinking about these questions, I thought about what I’d be admitting with my answers.

Despite my attempts to steer clear of this, perhaps my disability is integral to my identity rather than just an addition onto the core ‘me’.

Maybe I can’t complain about my discomfort if I cannot imagine a better future.

Now I know that I have a lot more to consider. I have more questions and uncertainty to live with. I have a difficult dance with self-honesty and awareness.

To take a further step towards honesty, I’ll say it’s really scary. It’s like existential angst all over again. Unfortunately, I don’t think Albert Camus wrote a disabled version of The Stranger or The Myth of Sisyphus.

However, I’m glad Witty Ticcy Ray inspired the question. Given the length of the problem and the uncertainty surrounding the end, it was going to pop up eventually.

As always, thanks for reading.

***

1. The quote at the beginning is from The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks. Put it on your reading list if it isn’t there already. Witty Ticcy Ray was a man who had Tourette’s and was given Haldol to stop them. He became angry because he it took away his wit and quick reflexes. However, he still faced the problem of not being able to live a normal life with them.

2. When I wrote and shared Living with Chronic Pain, I was surprised at how well it was received. To everyone who read it, thanks for giving me the confidence to write more about disability. Hopefully, it’ll not only help me but other people who have disabilities, and those who are simply interested in it.

3. Here’s some more stuff to read:

The last two are positive articles about disability. I’m not sure if I share their enthusiasm but it’s also important to consider that mine is much less severe than theirs. It’s always good to have differing opinions about this subject rather than an echo chamber.

4. There have been a lot of end notes. Here’s another one.

***

[1] Julian Savulescu and Guy Kahane offer a definition of disability in The Moral Obligation to Create Children with The Best Chance of the Best Life. I think I satisfy it but it doesn’t take away from the question.

A stable physical or psychological property of subject S that,

(1) leads to a significant reduction in S’s level of well-being in circumstances C, when contrasted with realistic alternatives,

(2) where that is achieved by making it impossible or hard for S to exercise some ability or capacity, and

(3) where the effect on well-being in question excludes the effect due to prejudice against S by members of S’s society.

Or more simply, had x condition not existed then the person’s well-being would be higher. But it excludes things like not being able to fly as a disability… so far.