A couple of weeks ago in her blog post, Chi-Chi Messick asked the question “Who am I and why am I here?” That’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot, because I had a health scare in the fall, and began to ponder my own mortality. Fall is a good time for that, because you’re surrounded by things that are at the end of their season. Leaves fall, short-lived annuals die, even the sun recedes from us.
However, as we move into the season of Lent next week, we are reminded of the resurrection of life found in Easter. And that’s an even better time to think about why we are here, while we still have time to do something about it.
My book club is reading the late neurologist Oliver Sacks’ last book. Called Gratitude, it is a collection of four essays he wrote in the two years before his death last August. They are extraordinary words from a man who was facing his own death, with no chance of reprieve. At the age of 80, a cancer that had been in remission for nine years metastasized to his liver, in a form for which there was no treatment.
On receiving the news of his imminent death, Dr. Sacks wrote an essay called “My Own Life,” included in the book, which was originally published in the New York Times. (If you would like to read the essay, click here.) In it, he wrote:
I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted.
It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. (My emphasis.)
The text I bolded really hit me when I reread the essay in the book. What makes our lives rich, deep, and productive? Even when – or maybe, especially when – we’re not faced with dying in a handful of months, how do we make our time on earth matter?
This question has been a core question in almost every philosophy. I’m not going to come up with an answer for anyone but myself, and even for myself, it’s a hard question. I do know that for me, a part of the answer is that I need to do whatever I can to make the world a better place.
That’s the main reason I applied for this job at the Moravian Ministries Foundation. I feel strongly that the work we do here benefits this city, this state, this country, and even people around the world. The people I work with all share this vision, and I think it is a big part of the reason we have all stayed in these jobs.
To return to Dr. Sacks, he ended the essay with these words:
I have been increasingly conscious, for the last ten 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.
What a beautiful last sentence that is. His sense of gratitude for his good life pervades the entire essay. I would like to feel like that for whatever amount of time remains to me, and that means I need to focus on the things in my life for which I am grateful. And there are so many. But he wrapped it up in such a beautiful package – I am a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet. How could I not be grateful for that?
What are you grateful for? What does that impel you to do? How can you reach the end of your life with that sense of having received a marvelous gift? Dr. Sacks’ essay is a call to action in many ways. How will you respond to it?