Oliver and I are Going to Die

Oliver Sacks thinks differently from me. He will be dead soon. He’s handling it much better than I would:

I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

I am, to the best of my knowledge, no nearer to death than any other reasonably healthy 37-year-old American male, but I almost never feel “intensely alive.” If anything, I am keenly aware (paranoid?), constantly, of the utter void that inevitably awaits, some time…who knows when?

How does Sacks do it? If my end were knowingly near, I can’t conceive of my being in anything short of a panic. The End would be coming, soon. I would be counciled to achieve “acceptance,” but I find the very idea of the end of existence totally un-acceptable, and yet there is no option to reject it. Help! What do I do?

I will say that my perhaps premature mortal wariness urges me toward one way of Sacks’ thinking:

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.

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future.

I feel this way about all of these things now, as I perceive my ability to have any impact on the wider world to have long, long since past, if I ever had the ability at all. Where I once thrived on all things political, now I can barely stomach even tangential knowledge of what’s going on in politics, government, or world affairs. It is all so dismal. Futile.

But there remains my children, my wife, my creative pursuits. I can narrow my focus to those things and hopefully reap meaning from being alive. But I still feel that panic, that no matter how in-the-moment I manage to be, time simply refuses to stop advancing toward the void. It’s happening right now.

Sacks ends his piece with this expression of gratitude:

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.

It is, and as of right now, I don’t feel gratitude for having been able to experience it. I feel screwed that it will eventually be ripped away, and I don’t even know when.

Oliver Sacks thinks differently from me. We’ll be dead soon.

Relatedly, there’s my post where I explain why fear of death is not the same as fear of not-existing in the past, and there’s my post where I’m all flabbergasted by this guy who wants to end his life at 75.


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