The late neurologist and bestselling author Oliver Sacks—he wrote The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985) and one of his books became the Robin Williams/Robert De Niro film Awakenings(1990)—offered some late-in-life reflections recently in a posthumously published essay. (Sacks died of cancer a few years ago.)
A lover of culture, he put his hope for the human future particularly in science. “I revere good writing and art and music, but it seems to me that only science, aided by human decency, common sense, farsightedness, and concern for the unfortunate and the poor, offers the world any hope in its present morass.
“Between us, we can surely pull the world through its present crises and lead the way to a happier time ahead. As I face my own impending departure from the world, I have to believe in this—that mankind and our planet will survive, that life will continue, and that this will not be our final hour.”
I find all this to be terribly sad, and on at least two counts.
First, Sacks acknowledges explicitly in this reverie that he is not “a believer.” He holds out no hope for life beyond the grave. And he certainly was a good enough scientist not to cling to utopian fantasies about immortality somehow being achieved through technology. If science is going to save us, it isn’t going to save us from death.
“As one’s death draws near, one may take comfort in the feeling that life will go on—if not for oneself then for one’s children”—Sacks never married and died childless—”or for what one has created. Here, at least, one can invest hope.”
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