Updated: Jul 21, 2022
[This was originally posted in March 2019]
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.”
I admire Sacks’s brave honesty about that crucial issue. But as a believer, I wish he had embraced the Story of the One who did come out of the grave. I wish he had met the One who promises, on the basis of his own indestructible life (Hebrews 7:16), to give everlasting life for anyone who asks him for it. Instead, Dr. Sacks had to settle, as so many do, for a tightly circumscribed hope, for aspirations harshly limited by the boundary of death.
Second, Sacks puts his hope in a combination of science + human goodness. But the musings in the first half of the article focus on science providing us with the technology of cell phones and his appalled astonishment at how his fellow New Yorkers are disappearing into virtual reality while ignoring real people around them.
These “younger people…, who have grown up in our social-media era, have no personal memory of how things were before, and no immunity to the seductions of digital life. What we are seeing—and bringing on ourselves—resembles a neurological catastrophe on a gigantic scale.” Science + human nature isn’t bringing in the future he wants, that’s for sure.
When, in the very next paragraph—the last paragraph—he offers up his encomium to science, therefore, it seems a kind of whistling in the graveyard, a desperate wishing rather than a rational predicting, of the future of science + human nature. And he gives himself away, poignantly, as he says, “I have to believe in this” (emphasis added).
Well, I suppose one does, if that’s all one has to work with: science + humanity. But what if there were more, much more, available? What if there is indeed a God, a God who made us and loves us and stands willing to save us—not only from our problems, but from our chief problem: ourselves?
What if we didn’t have to place our hope in the perennially faltering human qualities of “decency, common sense, farsightedness, and concern for the unfortunate and the poor”—qualities that are not in abundant evidence everywhere in the corridors of power these days—but could hope in something, or Someone, much, much better? Indeed, in Someone who has all of those virtues and wants to infuse them into us?
It’s less than two months until Easter. Maybe a good time to investigate if such a wildly wonderful Story is true?