A few weeks ago, I posted a blog that indicated some of my feelings about approaching my 80th birthday. Today I’ll share with you another person’s view of 80, that of Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author.
Dr. Sacks writes, ” My father, who lived until 94, said that the 80s 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 in perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled buy stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps of beauty. At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, free from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind defaults and feelings of a lifetime together.
I’m looking forward to being 80.”
This was part of an essay written as he was approaching 80 years old. It was spoken by a man who knew that the end of his life was near. Years earlier, Oliver Sacks was found have a melanoma in his eye, and he wrote this knowing that the melanoma had spread widely throughout his body. He lived until 82 when he succumbed to his disease.
He retained his optimism and continued his writing until just before death. You may know that Oliver Sacks was a neurologist for some note. Aside from his last book, Gratitude, from which this essay was taken, Dr. Sacks wrote 13 other books, the best known of which were Awakenings and The Man That Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Awakenings was made into a movie with Robin Williams playing Dr. Sacks.
We all know that we are going to die at some point. It seems to me that one of the challenges, if you are lucky enough to reach 80, is to really acknowledge that and come to terms with the inevitability of your death in order to move past it and focus on the opportunities that we still have to savor life. It requires living intensely in the present rather than looking ahead and anticipating the future. It’s the difference between waiting for the string to play out and investing in the possibilities that still exist. The final chapters of life can be a very creative time if one doesn’t get bogged down anticipating the worst. It takes courage and discipline. Oliver Sacks embodied that.