Oliver Sacks On Understanding Life Backwards

Sometimes life is only understood in retrospect.

Oliver Sacks On Understanding Life Backwards

I typically find new authors by looking at references, sources, and recommendations from other authors I’m currently reading. One person that continued to pop up was a British Neurologist named Oliver Sacks. He was also a prolific writer whose books cover many topics, from how the brain works to his own life.

He died in 2015 from cancer at the age of 82. While researching him, I found an article in the NY Times that he wrote only days after discovering he had a short time left to live. While he didn’t want to be in his condition, what stuck out to me was how at peace he was. He had an acceptance of death because he was happy with how he lived.

In his article, he describes that he lived his life with “violent enthusiasm” and “extreme immoderation in all his passions.” He was also reflective, writing, “Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts.”

I also learned about the many trials and tribulations that defined his life as much as his successes. This article will look at some of the themes I observed by trying to connect the parts.

Difficult Experiences Shape You

“Turn your wounds into wisdom.” - Oprah Winfrey

Oliver endured many difficulties in his life, starting at a very young age. Growing up in England, he was separated from his family due to bombings and evacuations during WWII. He and his brother spent 18 months away from home, where they faced bullying and violence. These months had a lasting impact on them.

Shortly after, his brother started experiencing agitation, insomnia, restlessness, and hallucinations. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a time when it wasn't well accepted or understood. Oliver states, “I became terrified of him, for him, the nightmare which was becoming reality for him, what would happen to Michael? And would something similar happen to me too?”

These moments began his interest in the brain and developed his empathy toward those who suffered from similar disorders. He would share many stories in his books of patients with conditions that were not well understood. He would succeed in humanizing and increasing understanding toward his patients and how the brain works.

Doors Will Open You Where You Didn't Expect

“I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.” - Joseph Campbell

Oliver had a lifelong passion for science as well as an interest in literature. Both his parents were doctors, and Oliver decided to pursue medicine as a career. After graduating from medical school, he thought he wanted to become a research scientist.

However, he had a problem.

He wasn’t very good at it. He was clumsy in the lab and careless with paperwork. He was eventually assigned to spend time with patients to minimize mistakes. This rejection bothered Oliver, and he struggled with what path he would take in life. At the time he was also using drugs and chasing reckless activities. Often going multiple nights with little to no sleep.

By chance, he discovered an old book published in the 1870s called Megrim, a book about headaches written by a doctor who documented all his patient’s case studies. He was inspired by the author and decided he would start writing his own books that documented case studies in the same way. He never used drugs again.

In his words, “I resolved to write a comparable book, a migraine of my own, a migraine for the 1960s incorporating many examples from my own patients. It would be the first book I ever published, and I never took amphetamine again. I didn’t need it anymore, nor have I touched it since. And partly because of this and partly because life and work became much more interesting.”

Working directly with patients in the field, not with data, is where he would spend the rest of his career.

Carve Out Your Own Path

"The things you get fired for when you’re young are the same things that you get lifetime achievement awards for when you’re old." - Francis Ford Coppola

Writing about individual case studies as research was an older practice and not very popular at the time due to the industry's focus on larger data research to understand diseases.

Oliver didn’t think that brought enough understanding as to what patients were thinking and feeling. He chose to do his research by spending time with patients and writing case studies to report his discoveries. After publishing some of his work, his peers rejected his ideas due to the novelty of his methods and discoveries.

However, multiple books later, he was widely accepted by scientists worldwide and often consulted for his unique perspective of the brain. Many of his stories have been adapted into plays and films, breaking down stigmas and sharing his stories with the mainstream.

With his unique struggles, his unique passions, his unique gifts, he carved out a unique path. One that allowed him to find meaning in his death.

In his words.“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.”

Conclusion - Looking Backward

"It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards.
A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood; exactly because there is no single moment where time stops completely in order for me to take position [to do this]: going backwards." - Søren Kierkegaard

Given everything we know about Oliver - his parents, brother, interestest in science and literature - much of his career seems obvious in hindsight. However, he was clear that it wasn’t so obvious to him. He struggled for many years, trying to figure it out.

There is a metaphor about holding a picture right up to your nose. Being so close to your eyes, you will easily make out the tiny details. But it’s too close to see the whole picture.

You can only see that by zooming out.

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