Oliver Sacks: “There will be no one like us when we are gone”

A couple of years ago the author Oliver Sacks wrote an insightful essay about his delight at growing old. He was surprised to find himself in his eighties and to find how gratifying it was. I posted about what an encouragement that essay was to me. 

However, Sacks recently found that he is terminally ill and wrote about facing his rapidly approaching demise. Go read the whole essay in the New York Times. He is eloquently reflective as he shares his news and explores his response in his final days. He closes with a measured and gracious appreciation for having had what he clearly considers a meaningful, well-lived life:

“I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. 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.

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.

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.”

That’s a fine epitaph for anyone. Imagine facing your own imminent death with such poise and perspective, not flailing or grasping futilely in panic.

Of course, to make it past 80 after a notable life of accomplishment might have a calming effect as death approaches. I would like to think I could have such a healthy acceptance of my fate even without the gift of all those years and accomplishments. (Personally, I’m fine with not having to ponder this more directly until I approach, say, the century mark.)

However, none of us know our expiration date. But we all, like Oliver Sacks, have the privilege of being alive and aware right now and able to make our unique mark on this human experience like no other human ever has or ever will.

I suppose the best way to be prepared for a gracious end is to keep living as excellent of a now as you can–delighting in the mystery, loving deeply, making this place even a bit more beautiful with the art that only you can create.