Oliver Sacks – “What Really Matters”

Oliver Sacks is one of my heroes. The New York Times calls him, “The Poet Laureate of Medicine.” This man could really write. Of all of his works though, which there are many, his writing that has most resonated with me which I’ve kept closest, is the essay he published in the NYT on February 19, 2015– mere months before his death later that year due to terminal cancer. I literally keep a PDF of that essay on my desktop.

We often hear the advice to “live each day as if it’s your last.” “Carpe diem” and “to seize the day.” But do any of us truly do that? And what would doing so actually entail? Being caught up in the news cycle of the day? The latest umbrage and protest?

In today’s busy life, especially in 2020, a genuinely strange year, I have taken the advice to mean focusing on what is essential to you. And letting the rest recede. As I’ve grown older, I’ve increasingly detached from the world and have instead begun focusing on only what I feel truly matters to me. Upon learning of his terminal diagnosis, Sacks wrote on February 19, 2015 (emphasis, mine):

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 rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

Oliver Sacks – “My Own Life” (The New York Times, February 19, 2015)

I don’t have terminal cancer, but I do value my time. And I don’t feel like we should wait until we’re at death’s door to properly value time and to value our own lives. If not now, then when? If not you, then who? If not here, then where?