Notes – Gratitude (Oliver Sacks)

80 year old clinician and writer Oliver Sacks on his impending death.

  1. “I am sorry I have wasted (and still waste) so much time; I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at eighty as I was at twenty […]”

    1/ What a reminder. To be as shy at eighty as at twenty – that’s 60 years worth of missed opportunities to share experience, to connect with other human beings.

    2/ When I think about the future, I’m often imagining a different version of myself living that life – more confident, more present, more accomplished. But, none of that happens without doing the work to get there. And nothing takes care of itself on its own. After all, how many times have I failed to tend to my health, or relationships, or career? How many people do I know like that? The adults who […] and anesthetized by comfort – I doubt it was their conscious plan, either. But it didn’t just happen.

  2. On a friend who passed away: “I often dream of him and of my parents and of former patients – all long gone but loved and important in my life.”

    Freud: “Love and work … work and love, that’s all there is.” Love through relationship. And what is work, but a way we contribute value to the people we have relationships with? Not (just) making money to feed the family – but the value your work creates – how what you build or do adds value for those who use it; the health/comfort a nurse makes possible for patients; etc.

  3. “My father, who lived to ninety-four, often said that the eighties had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective.”

    1/ A different way of aging than the stereotype. I’ve learned so much from being exposed to those older than me, from seeing where the different ways of being take people 30 years down the road. Yet we live in such an age segregated way.

    2/ Einstein: “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world.”

    Stephen Cohen: “We tend to massively underestimate the compounding returns of intelligence. […] When you recognize that intelligence is compounding, the cost of that missing long-term compounding is enormous. They’re not giving you the best opportunity of your life. Then a scary thing can happen: You might realize one day that you’ve lost your competitive edge.”

    We can grow our intelligence in a compounding way – why not our equanimity, our tendency to be grateful, the quality of our relationships, the quality of our lives? Personality form according to learned response from early (ex. childhood) experience – ex. I do this, it gets me attention – and the rest of it accumulates according to experiencing the world from these early lens. Compounding.

    Addition, March 2019: Compounding in the way most people talk about it just means focussing on something and continuing to improve at it over time. But it’s really meant in a way that enhances itself — how do we get to that vs. just linear improvement? How do we even get a framework or example for those two things compared against each other – ex. the linearly improving engineer vs. the compounding-ly improving engineer?

  4. “One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’ too.”

    Freud, again. How you relate to yourself and to others.
  5. “One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities.”

    A reminder to ask oneself – you may be seeing from the sidelines, but what are you experiencing? What are you contributing to? What are you a part of?

    Also – at the end of the day – most of these things don’t matter. “Booms and busts, revolutions and wars […]” – life goes on anyway – until it doesn’t. Paying attention to this kind of material, “news-material”, isn’t that important – depending on what you prioritize in your life.

  6. “I do not think of old age as […] but as a time […] freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.”

    (i) The point of meditation, of mindfulness, of therapy – to bind thoughts and feelings and actions – to connect to what you are emotionally experiencing, instead of rejecting, denying, hiding from or coping against it.

    (ii) What qualifies as a lifetime? Some pregnancies are miscarried. Newborns, infants, kids, teenagers, adults, the elderly – all die.  The point is – being free to explore whatever you wish – don’t wait.

    (iii) Addition, March 2019: Why not create this for myself today? If I really want to learn, isn’t this the most crucial thing? Worth adding in thank-you to Haseeb re: his advice.

  7. “Now that I am dying, I must […]” and later in another essay, “I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.”

    The moment you’re born, you’re dying. Saying “I must” to ourselves is a way of creating false urgency. We always have a choice – and one day, we might wake up at eighty and find we’ve been making it all wrong for all that time. As long as you’re alive, though, you can learn.  If you wouldn’t do it dying at 80, why do it dying at 20? (excepting those values, interests which change with age. But I don’t know that watching the news, or buzzfeed are a part of most people’s values at 20.)

  8. “I feel I should be trying to complete my life, whatever ‘completing a life’ means. Some of my patients in their 90s or 100s say nunc dimittis — ‘I have had a full life, and now I am ready to go.’”

    This is happiness – the sense that nothing is missing. It doesn’t have to take 90 years to get there. If it ends, it ends. Ajahn Chah on the already broken glass. Also: Gratitude without a need for reason. There’s so much internal resistance to this at first – so much needs to be done; this and that must be accomplished. Not really – it’s normal to go and do those external things, and build this and that – but at some point, you might ask – is it OK to give myself permission to be happy now? Is it OK to feel complete now? Happiness deferred will never be happiness.

    To remember well is to have lived twice. There’s value in having gratitude for this rich lived experience – that’s a major theme of these essays.

    But there’s also immense value in gratitude without cause. Simple gratitude for whatever is happening right now – if there’s a breeze, gratitude for the breeze; if birds are chirping, gratitude for that. It’s gratitude for the experience of experience, not gratitude because of any particular reason- it just is. And then there’s nothing to feel sorry about, either – any experience is gratitude.

    Addition, March 2019: feeling that something needs to be done and then doing it also allows peace, and is healthy and useful. With focus on the right things, this is useful and good.

  9. “I have to say that I am not too exercised by the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness – indeed I do not see it as a problem at all […]”

    Peace at its core – “indeed I do not see it as a problem at all […]”

  10. “I am looking forward to being 80.”
  11. “A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky “powdered with stars” (in Milton’s words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are).”

    I want to go camping again. Or be alone for a week, in this kind of environment. What an experience. (But whatever peace I can find there and then, I can find here and now.)

  12. “Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.”

    Coping is natural. But all coping is temporarily separating ourselves from our emotions – which are only the province of living things that, in being living, are dying. When we eat, why do we overeat? Because we don’t want the experience to end – end means facing, again, what we’re escaping. It’s disconnecting from what we’re feeling, the opposite of his earlier comment – “to bind the thoughts and feelings” – to connect to what he’s feeling.

  13. On lemurs: “I love their leaping vitality, their inquisitive nature.”

    Like kids. Kids are happy. Kids ask questions.

  14. “Uncles and aunts and cousins would visit us for tea, or we them; we all lived within walking distance of one another.”

    This is such an alien thing to me – having so much family so close around, visiting so often. But for most humans, for most of time, this kind of closeness would have been the norm – living with the tribe. Family is annoying, but there’s something to be said for this closeness and what it does for our health, our feeling of connection. (Isn’t that spirituality, after all – dissolving the illusion of being a separate self.) Especially a great foundation to socialize children, internalize in them a sense of belonging.

    John Gatto: “We live in networks, not communities, and everyone I know is lonely because of that.”

  15. “After I qualified as a doctor in 1960, I removed myself abruptly from England and what family and community I had there, and went to the New World, where I knew nobody. When I moved to Los Angeles, I found a sort of community among the weight lifters on Muscle Beach, and with my fellow neurology residents at U.C.L.A., but I craved some deeper connection — “meaning” — in my life, and it was the absence of this, I think, that drew me into near-suicidal addiction to amphetamines in the 1960s.”

    Easy to scoff at seeking “meaning” – but we’re all doing it. What do we get from pursuing meaning? He specifies it as connection. There’s Freud again. What does connection feel like? Affirmation. A feeling of being approved of. A sense that our work and, through it, we ourselves – matter.

    That meaning is subjective doesn’t make it something to escape or “transcend.” Experience itself is subjective. Best to pick meaning(s) that work for you, ones that enrich your life, and don’t preclude your happiness. “Success” – too broad. “Happiness” – too broad, too easy. “Making my parents happy” – among the worst, but how many of us live that, unconsciously, anyway?

    How to align meaning (i.e. purpose) with connection? Shep Gordon talks about being of service as his mission. All our suffering comes from a focus on self – being of service shifts the focus from self to others. Then there’s the adage – if you want to be a billionaire, help a billion people. Business is simply people exchanging things they assign value to. Service is adding value to people’s lives. So, being of service isn’t just a way to be happy – it’s a way to give back to the community (Freud on work and love) – and to thrive in that way. But these are all choices we must come to on our own. Life is subjective; so is meaning.

    The whole book is, in a way, an answer to this question – see #2. Service and connection and work. Meaning.

  16. “He was full of entertaining stories about the Nobel Prize and the ceremony in Stockholm, but made a point of saying that, had he been compelled to travel to Stockholm on a Saturday, he would have refused the prize. His commitment to the Sabbath, its utter peacefulness and remoteness from worldly concerns, would have trumped even a Nobel.”

    What an example of knowing yourself, and living a commitment to your values instead of chasing success, chasing what everyone else wants. If our professed values are theories, the hard choices are the experiments that prove our commitment to them – or disprove it.

  17. “The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything,”

    This is real presence. Time us just in our head – remembering the past is just daydreaming about something outside our immediate experience – same for contemplating the future. “When” is really “what-if.” The only thing that’s real is right now. What a thing to share with others.

  18. “I felt embraced by my family in a way I had not known since childhood.”

    As we get older, we separate ourselves more and more – more network, less community. I wonder if this also speaks to how his mother rejected him so harshly for his sexuality. After so consciously separating himself from his family, in part probably to avoid the pain of that rejection, was it cathartic to find a home among relatives again? That pain of separation, rejection was a place he never let himself “bind thoughts and feelings” – and here he did. Makes it apparent how everything can compound – including pain. Left unaddressed, it compounds into the fault lines in our personalities that fissure under pressure.

    Addition, March 2019: Wow, how dramatic was that note^. True, but life is love – this is a joy too.