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Lessons and Facts from Dr. Oliver Sacks

When I am stuck in the living nightmare that is Atlanta traffic, I usually listen to podcasts to assuage my road rage. Last month, while listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Radiolab, I found myself increasingly absorbed by an interview with a charming and spritely English doctor for his 80th birthday. This was unusual for a podcast that focused singularly on science and philosophy. The doctor’s name was Oliver Sacks. In fact, a simple search for his name on Radiolab resulted in nearly ten pages of references, features, and interviews.

By the end of that month, Dr. Sacks and I had several, similar serendipitous encounters. In addition to the podcast, I stumbled upon a number of articles he authored for The New Yorker and found out my roommate had his autobiography on his bookshelf.

Dr. Sacks was a neurologist, researcher, best-selling author, subject of a film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, weight lifting record holder, and someone who has since grown to become a beloved figure in my life. I hope to share some lessons I learned from him here.

Lesson One: Keep a journal and pen on hand.

I don’t mean just lugging a notebook around from meeting to meeting. Instead, carry a personal journal with you in a backpack, laptop bag, or seat of your car. Dr. Sacks always kept a journal to document notes and observations throughout his day – from neurological breakthroughs to notable encounters with strangers to self-experimentation with hallucinogens. We don’t all live expansive lives like the Doctor, but making a habit of keeping notes can help us reference ideas or make connections we might not have noticed otherwise. You can even number your pages and create a table of contents in the back for quick reference!

“My journals are not written for others, nor do I usually look at them myself, but they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.”

Lesson Two: An honest life is a healthy one.

Dr. Sacks lived in England during a time when being homosexual was against the law. Regardless, Dr. Sacks never renounced his sexuality even though it distanced him from his mother and a few of his friends. Dr. Sacks applied this philosophy to other areas of his life – his research, his shyness, his face blindness, and his faith.

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

Lesson Three: Live an unexpected life led by curiosity and wonder.

In August 2015, Dr. Sacks passed away after the cancer in his eye mestasized throughout his body. Ironically, news of his death prompted me to read an autobiography of his life titled On the Move, which illuminated his illustrious life. Dr. Sacks did not live his life based on the expectations of others. He moved across the world, he studied and consumed all things that piqued his curiosity (even those outside his field), and he acquainted himself with people from every walk of life. Although Dr. Sacks did not beat death, he lived a full, vibrant existence. I cannot even begin to encompass everything this wonderful human being has accomplished, so I can only urge you to read his books.

Now that I near the end of this blog, I hope we all share the same conclusion: Dr. Sacks was not merely a man of science, he was also a man of the world. He was not bound to country lines and tough terrain, by lineage and religion, or social rules and expectations. He has taught me to live a life of honesty, healthy obsession, and gratitude.

Dr. Sacks ended his essay, where he revealed he was dying, with the following quote:

“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.”

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