Gratitude is the last work we shall have from Oliver Sacks. It comprises four essays that were published in the closing years and months of his life. The first essay, Mercury, was written and published before Oliver Sacks discovered that he had a rare and difficult to treat form of melanoma. It celebrates old age, and the essay feels, in its way, soberly upbeat. It is an essay steeped in the love of living. Within its words reside the glimmering promise of good health and happiness for at least a few years to come. And yet there is a tension that Oliver Sacks never intended. As the reader, we know more than he did when writing it. We know that he will not live out the decade. We know that his body was already secretly betraying him to cancerous cells, even as he wrote about the joys of good health in old age.
The subsequent three essays were written after the cancer diagnosis, and they are, as such, reflective on what it means to reach life’s end. But that said, all of these four essays are, none of them, depressing works. Oliver Sacks was always in his writing, a believer; a believer in human capacity to cope with strange twists of neurological fate; a believer in the ultimate goodness of human nature; a believer in others; a believer in himself. I don’t doubt that a person cannot always and constantly believe in the fundamental goodness of life: but I have to wonder if Oliver Sacks came as close as might be humanly possible? His written words seem so irrepressibly positive. And all this despite the fact that Sacks clearly found himself in times and places during his life where the evidence was stacked against there being any sort of fundamental goodness underlying our human existence.
Cancer and life and death aside, at its heart, Gratitude is a set of essays about exactly the word in the title. Gratitude for a life well lived, for health, for friends, and for the opportunity to live a life that permitted a flourishing mind. It is easy to lose sight of our individual luck and fortune in the world we live in. It is easy to misplace our gratitudes. How effortless is it, to instead focus on what we do not have and what others have that we want? How easy is it to stare at one’s life and see only dreams that will not and cannot come to fruition? So, although I find myself encouraged by these essays, I confess, I am made a little bit frightened too. What if at the end of my life the title of my collected final essays would be writ most aptly ‘Disappointment’? What if I were forced to title my final written pieces, ‘Defeat’, or ‘Resentment’ or ‘Lost Hope’? It is so trivially easy to slip down that road. It is a struggle to view each day as an expanse of potential, not potential loss.
And maybe that is the final lesson Oliver Sacks had to teach us? There are glimpses in these essays of his own struggles against defeat. There are glimpses of the humble, mortal human being who struggled to live well. There are small bits of insight into how he actively brought about a good view of the world, and a life well lived.
I don’t want to undermine the pleasure of reading Gratitude by detailing too much of it, but I will leave you with just one of his small bits of day-to-day advice: Always celebrate your birthday. It may seem simple, but you know what? People do avoid celebrating their birthdays when they don’t want to celebrate themselves–when they want to not look too closely at the prospect of getting older–when they are perhaps embarrassed by what they never quite got around to doing over the last year. Perhaps committing to celebrating one’s birthday is a simple step towards a better mental space? Perhaps it is a way to arrive at some self-compassion? No matter what your year was like, no matter how bad, no matter how good, and no matter whether you feel you’ve been successful or not, allowing yourself to celebrate the existence of you just once a year doesn’t sound like so much of a big ask, does it? But it sometimes really is. I confess that I haven’t celebrated my birthday in twenty years. Twenty years. Some years, I even forget it is my birthday until someone reminds me. Though, I wonder also, is there not perhaps a more than slightly false undertone to my birthday-avoidance? I wonder if I’m actually secretly celebrating not celebrating myself? Surely, there is at least a small element of self-pity in avoiding birthdays so assiduously? The bricks that build a positive world in which we might live are small, but that does not make them any less heavy. In the end, I think we must try to remember that large things are built from the small: from small celebrations, large gratitudes may yet be constructed.