Remembering Oliver Sacks

Virginia Woolf reminded us that “Love has a thousand faces.” Oliver Sacks has taught me that curiosity is one of those faces. I think of the endearing way Robin Williams (playing Sacks in the movie Awakenings, with Sacks’ blessing and to Sacks’ own delight) gazed, peered, pondered, watched the patients in his care, looking for signs, clues, small individuating details that might guide him into the intimate empathy he seems to have found for one patient after another. He seems never to have thought of them as a category—“patients”—but always one after another, as persons with stories, who suffered in ways as various as their quirks and facial tics.

He seemed to live by the questions that opened windows into others’ lives and kept his own heart and mind open in situations where many might have closed them. Who are you? What is it like to be you? What exactly are you experiencing? Can I find a verb for that? Has anyone given it a name? Maybe it’s medical, maybe it’s psychological, maybe it’s spiritual—but what is it, really?

His empathy seems to have been oddly separable from sympathy—or at least to have little of that pity that so easily dissolves into sentimentality. The objectivity about his own death that enabled him to write with such startling clarity and care about it in his final months came from a long practice of the kind of detachment Buddhists talk about—the emphatic opposite of indifference. The detachment of the fully engaged witness.

He left us that to remember and hope for and practice.

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