Though I never met, or even physically saw, Oliver Sacks, his death struck me the way I imagine I’ll feel the death of a close friend—in flavor if not in intensity. The initial wave of sadness and deep sense of loss dropped in on me out of nowhere when, bleary-eyed, I scrolled through my Twitter feed last Sunday morning. The first image that came unbidden to my mind was that of an intergalactic scene; looking out into the universe with a telescope, and seeing a bright, luminant star blink and suddenly disappear into nothing. The moment he died we lost a wonderful, curious, generous and deeply intelligent consciousness.
Of course, this consciousness has seeped out into the world in innumerable ways, and will live and flourish beyond confines of his own life—distillations of his presence found in his writings, which were lucid and clear depictions of his investigations into the depths of his own mind and the world around him; audio recordings of his lovely, slightly squeaky and soft voice; the individual seeds of wonder and joy and engagement that he sowed into every person he touched with his spirit and his intellect, and that will flourish within their own minds and lifetimes. But still, the locus of that mental energy; the ongoing essence of who he was, able to react to new events of the world, is gone.
I consoled myself, as I consoled others, with the following thought: was not his life, in many ways, a model to be emulated? A life fully lived and, near the end especially, lived well? Does it really get much better than him? As far as I can tell, not really. His was a life lived in honesty with all its flaws; it was a life full of experiences and mistakes but also great triumphs; weaknesses and strengths marching together with hand in hand. There is something scary and saddening—the truth that life does end—and yet hopeful—it is possible to make the most of it—in that realization I had about Sacks.
I think his passing has prompted all of these huge questions and deep currents of feeling in me as I see in him the type of person I aspire to be; and whose essential nature seems to have been cut from the same cloth as mine. Like him, I am someone who, as he put it, is compelled to write so as to achieve clarity with myself; writing is the way I can access my most lucid state of being. Sacks was an author and a scientist; a speaker and a practicing physician. He desired to—at least, in his later years he explicitly did—and managed to touch the world at its most basic and tangible level in his one on one human interactions with patients, as well as at the abstracted level of storytelling, and advancement of scientific ideas. I’m not sure if he ever formally did any basic research within an institution, or had scientific papers published (his case studies of his patients were highly research-oriented, even if they didn’t fit into any professionalized research discipline) but his intellect was such that the insights he gleaned and shared throughout his life spanned not only the realm of entertaining and empathetic journalism, but also the realm of the profoundly scientific. He pushed his fingertips upon the frontiers of human knowledge just as much as he encouraged us all, on an individual level, at the level of our own lives and our own narratives, to see the world and each other differently.
I have always grappled with ambition, and whenever it rears its head I am wary of it as much as I am seduced by it. Desires for success, for fame, for recognition, for greatness, to achieve something have been driving me since at least my mid teen years, and just today (upon publishing one of my first big journalism projects, and seeing the number of people who read it and enjoyed it and shared it tick upwards—a highly satisfying yet addictive and dangerous form of validation) I felt a resurgence of those ambitious pangs of hunger. The latest variant of my own ambitious impulse is in the future possible self my imagination has begun to craft—each of whose facets feels within the realm of at least vague possibility: writer, scientist, researcher, speaker, journalist, thought leader. I’ve begun to reach an understanding of how the world works and of my own capabilities, such that I could pursue any of these goals, at surface value, and getting them through hard work and effort would not be out of the question. The deeper current, though, of a desire to do something bigger, better, something great, motivates all of these individual ambitions. I don’t care much about superficial celebrity; about my picture being everywhere (though I do enjoy the sensation of being well-read and having my writing appreciated; which I suppose has superficial strains). But I do care about being in the esteem of those whose minds I respect and admire. I long for intellectual and artistic validation; for intellectual and artistic greatness with the sort of deep value that other past “great” thinkers have had, and whose ideas have brushed the truth so much as to remain in perpetuity over time.
At this point, I’ve been educated enough and have read enough, seen enough, observed enough, to get a sense of the overall sweeps of “great” people’s lives. The role of random chance in all of them is undeniable. But there is, it seems to me, also a certain thread to a “great” life that involves a deeply held, inner commitment to something. To a value or set of values. I’m not sure whether those values are actively chosen or can be determined after the fact—I think about Kierkegaard’s wonderful aphorism that life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.
For me, the ambitious or unsettled feelings I’ve been having lately seem to be converging around the idea of my large, often-internally-conflicting, possible constellations of values; some of which I already am actively cultivating, others I’m not so sure about. The question is which values do I continue to preference, and which to leave aside, no matter how glittering and enticing they may be. Notoriety is one particular glinting gem that has presented itself to me during my current stint in the journalism world. But I can reason, and perhaps intuitively sense, the eerie tinge it has to it, the damage it can cause.
I feel lucky to have discovered and read some philosophy—essentially, humanity’s great research project into what it means to live well. It’s an ongoing record, over thousands of years, about what kinds of values and lifestyles tend to work; and those that don’t. Religions, too, are other similarly scoped research projects. Buddhism’s values of non-attachment and loving-kindness. Christianity’s values. (Is there any religion that values knowledge in and of itself?)
I feel this maddening hunger not just to achieve a state of being something within my lifetime but of touching the world in such a way that it long outlives me. Of nudging the peanut along in that great, human-wide quest for knowledge; while also living a good life and touching those I meet along the way with kindness. Are these two desires—for greatness that is both eternal and ephemeral—conflicting? Does desiring to do great things, and to be great, actually get you there? Do we each need to define greatness for ourselves? I’m not sure.
I know I have a sharp mind, and an open heart. I know I’ve got all sorts of doors open to me, and all sorts of social, professional and academic connections that I could make use of; as well as economic and emotional and social support from a network of friends and family, that put me in a unique and amazing position to put my ideas and thoughts into action; to press against the limits of our knowledge with precision and creativity. Of course, I want to live independently and support myself economically; but these are but sub goals on what I want to be a mission that transcends just the material. Oh boy, I’m starting to sound like one of those guys with a megaphone outside the subway.
For now, as I put aside this still-tangled knot of my mental space, I’m going to come back to my mother’s timeless advice: Sometimes, you just need to focus on the little things. I’ll bet you anything that Oliver Sacks would also give that sentiment a knowing smile.