Before his death in August, neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a number of elegant essays about what it meant to him to know he was nearing the end of his life. In those writings, a theme emerged: gratitude. Sacks expressed gratefulness for his work, for the people in his life — including the many patients he became close with — and for the beauty of the physical world. In a new book, Gratitude, which will be published on Tuesday, those essays appear together in a lovely slim volume.
Here are just a few of Sacks’s musings on gratitude, appropriately published this Thanksgiving week.
On the first time he believed death was near:
I thought I would die at 41, when I had a bad fall and broke a leg while mountaineering alone. I splinted the leg as best I could and started to lever myself down the mountain, clumsily, with my arms. In the long hours that followed, I was assailed by memories, both good and bad. Most were in a mode of gratitude — gratitude for what I had been given by others, gratitude too that I had been able to give something back.
On the simple perfection of pleasant weather:
At nearly 80, with a scattering of medical and surgical problems, none disabling, I feel glad to be alive — “I’m glad I’m not dead!” sometimes bursts out of me when the weather is perfect. (This is in contrast to a story I heard from a friend who, walking with Samuel Beckett in Paris on a perfect spring morning, said to him, “Doesn’t a day like this make you glad to be alive?” to which Beckett answered, “I wouldn’t go as far as that.”) I am grateful that I have experienced many things — some wonderful, some horrible — and that I have been able to write a dozen books, to receive innumerable letters from friends, colleagues, and readers, and to enjoy what Nathaniel Hawthorne called ‘an intercourse with the world.’
On the joy of being a writer and reader:
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 an adventure.
On the beauty of the natural world, after a night staring at a starry sky:
I have been comforted, since I wrote in February about having metastatic cancer, by the hundreds of letters I have received, the expressions of love and appreciation, and the sense that (despite everything) I may have lived a good and useful life. I remain very glad and grateful for all this — yet none of it hits me as did that night sky full of stars.