The Man Who Mistook His Life for That

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 12.27.38 PMMany students sent me this past week a link to Oliver Sack’s My Own Life, an Op Ed piece in the New York Times.


Dr. Sacks, the eminent neurologist turned author of books on people whose brains and or senses lack what some might call “normalcy” is facing his own death from liver cancer. Dr. Sacks is 81, a prodigious and prolific writer; he takes to pen to deliver his own eulogy of sorts, a reflection on his life while exhorting himself and serving model to others to be as fully present to what is important in life and the awareness of what the present moment offers.


He writes: “Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life. To the contrary, 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 feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”


Within a few hours, Dr. Sacks’ Op Ed piece generated 808 responses to the editor and a note appeared: Comment section closed. Many of the letters were personal, reflections from students and colleagues, from people who drove Dr. Sacks to and from a lecture and from those who encountered him for a moment at the local pool. I wondered if Dr. Sacks would consider reading them essential or inessential. One responder even suggested to Dr. Sacks: “I hope you don’t waste a minute reading these maudlin comments.”


I decided they were essential reading for me, my way to honor the man, who through his books, inspired me to achieve “new levels of understanding and insight.” So I waded through hundreds of these letters, many are a few words, or one or two lines, others are paragraphs long. They fall into the following categories:


  1. Gratitude and love for Oliver Sacks
  2. Adulation (Dr. Sacks gets called a “mensch” many times and “brilliant” even more; one person named his son Oliver because of his respect for Dr. Sacks)
  3. Personal remembrance from students (you inspired me to be a neurologist) and colleagues
  4. Personal remembrances a moment spent with Dr. Sacks (You have a sweet and gentle stroke, it propels you through the water beautifully. Thank you Dr. Sacks, for a kind comment in a pool, to a stranger; a treasured moment and proof that beauty exists in unexpected places).
  5. Evoked memories of dealing with dying loved ones
  6. Unsolicited medical advice (both traditional and other treatment approaches)
  7. Unsolicited religious /spiritual advice (From accept Jesus to “you live on in your works” to thoughts about the immortality of the soul)
  8. Reflections on Dr. Sack’s message (You brought tears to my eyes and made me want to do something more significant with my life).
  9. One short critique (A good essay until he said an individual cannot be replaced. Wishful thinking).
  10. One long critique (see below)


Death is not an easy topic for many of us and when it gets personal, facing the death of a loved one (including the loved one called “me”) it can get even tougher. Dr. Sacks follows many others in helping us get real about death—“I cannot pretend I am without fear” and he is not creating any false hope for himself —“The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted.” What shines through is his “predominant feeling of gratitude” for “I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.”


What was the long critique? It is entitled: “May a dissenting voice speak here?” This responder takes offense at what he sees as Dr. Sack’s “need” to focus on his own “productivity”—the prodigious and prolific writings which have endeared him to so many. Indeed, Dr. Sacks does mention that in the last nine years (a gift after being diagnosed then with an ocular melanoma) he has published five books and that in the remaining time left he wants to be as productive as possible (more books to be finished). This responder though is the “man who mistook his life (Oliver Sacks) for that.” Dr. Sacks does admire (his own) productivity, but it is not just “that”—a resume he leaves behind—it is the caring and love and the kindness that infuses his life, whether that is evidenced in the books he writes or in his poolside chats. These are the footprints in the sand of time that are uniquely his—that indeed cannot be replaced.


Oliver Sacks still has (some) time, but as he is doing now, we all do: we live and we die in each moment and we can find comfort in the lovely awareness that he leaves us with: “When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”




Ode to Brian Williams

Ode_To_Brian_WilliamsWhen I was no more than 5 years old, I was pushing my younger brother in a carriage buggy, one of those more old fashioned types that the English call a pram. My memory of what happened is shrouded in the trauma that occurred—my brother’s tongue got caught (somehow) and deeply cut on the metal hinges securing the top cover. There was blood everywhere and my brother was rushed to the hospital for stiches. This memory is connected to a story line in my family of origin entitled “attempts on my brother’s life.” The next “attempt” occurred in a Florida pool, this one a very distinct memory of encouraging my younger brother, who was by then 6 or 7 to dive into the deep end of the pool. His two older sibs (our older sister and I) were there to catch him, but as he launched himself he got frightened and reached back for the side of the pool—his chin colliding with the concrete. Again, blood was gushing from my brother, again it was “my fault.”


A few years ago I was talking with my older sister, who revealed that not only was she present with me in the pool in Florida, she was by my side pushing the stroller. The stroller accident that I had believed was all my own doing—my first attempt on my brother’s life–had me think years later that it was more me, than my sister, who was “egging” my brother on to jump into the pool. My older sister, who had a different recollection of the stroller accident (she is two years older than me) added something profound as we talked, a simple sentence that altered my interpretation of that trauma. She asked me, “Did you ever wonder why we were given that responsibility of taking care of our brother at such a young age?” There is a family story line on this one as well, which, as I look back on it from my current vantage point, is a mixture of a more idyllic time in a sleepy, small town and a mother who often delegated care or her children to their older siblings (my older sister and I are the eldest of 6).


Chris Chabris and Daniel Simons, co-authors of The Invisible Gorilla: How our Intuitions Deceive Us, weigh in on the gaffe created by Brian Williams’ admission of misrepresenting a story from his Iraq war experience. Chabris and Simons conclude: “It’s unfortunate that so many people seem to have concluded that Brian Williams deliberately lied based solely on the fact that he recalled things that didn’t happen. Memory science shows that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish an honest mistake from a deliberate deception. A pattern of repeated exaggerations about different events, or documentary evidence from independent sources that Williams knew that what he was saying was untrue, would be more compelling evidence against the false memory explanation.”


Mr. Williams is now on leave for 6 months without pay from NBC. It is a time for him to reflect on the unfolding of his misrepresentations, be they conscious lies or unconscious distortions (I prefer that term to false) of memory. It also provides us time to reflect on our own memories, especially those associated with trauma and charged emotions, and to examine the memories themselves (click here to see the complete article by Chabirs and Simons) and how they have entered an interpretive story (or story line) of our life. It may not take 6 months but it has a potentially valuable pay-off; a new story for your life.




The Darkness of Male Supremacy

michele_obama_barack_obamaIn 1947, amidst the struggles of the birth of the State of Israel a young Bedouin shepherd boy stumbled across a half-dozen or more clay jars secreted in a cave in the area of Qumran. His findings, which he sold for less than $50, are the priceless Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of mostly Hebrew manuscripts argued to belong to the Essene community, religious Jewish separatists in the last centuries of Jewish dominion of the Land of Israel before the Common Era. One of these manuscripts from antiquity is a lengthy scroll fragment describing a battle between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness.


I first became acquainted with this scroll back in the late 1970’s when I was enrolled in graduate studies and was privileged to study it with Professor Sid Z. Leiman. We were all young twenty year olds trying to decipher the words that were written and missing in the text and then to consider their meaning. Was this a narrative of an actual conflict, projection of an apocalyptic war or a metaphor of the author’s sensitivity to the never ending spiritual-cosmic collision of light and darkness; a battle of ideas and ideology.


To be a Kabbalist is to observe closely the parallel developments of light and darkness, to see clearly what is the underlying thought and ideology that promotes one view and, in contrast, another view.


I have written before about Heterosexism and its relation to patriarchy—and would now like to extend those thoughts to a broader understanding of what is transpiring in our world regarding light and darkness. It can be summarized in two words: Male Supremacy. I know I am way behind those who have made these links before but all I am about to write about is culled from observing what is going on in the battle between the daughters and sons of light and the sons of darkness.


Let us start with Mother Earth. She is dying. This is not a natural death—it is a slow form of matricide. We have enslaved and continuously raped her; and now, as she convulses under our indiscriminate disregard; she that sustains us, she that is our home, she that gives birth to vegetation, to trees, to flowers, is in the throes of a death spiral. It is a form of subjugation perpetrated by a mythology of male supremacy (perpetrated by both men and women) that purports that God is male, that God has granted the dominion of the male over the female and the dominion of man over nature.


There are those who are yet unable to recognize the folly of such supremacist ideology—whether it is perpetrated against Mother Nature’s ecosystem or against mothers and daughters. Religious fundamentalism continues to promote and idealize the subjugation of the feminine—the indiscriminate disregard for the sanctity and honor of the feminine and its heinous escalation manifesting in brutality and force against women.


Writing on Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation, Ed Husain draws our attention to the underlying issue of atrocities perpetrated against women in Muslim societies. “These atrocities,” he states, “are mere symptoms of a deeper problem: fear of female freedom. From Turkey to Indonesia there is a civil war of ideas happening within Islam and the role for women in society is at the crux of it.”


Mr. Husain is outraged by the stoning of women in Raqqa, Syria by the order of the Islamic Caliphate for their “sexual promiscuity” (a bride was found not to be a virgin, another woman was sentenced to death for an extramarital affair). “Nothing hits me deeper in the gut,” writes Mr. Husain, a Muslim and a father of two daughters, “than seeing a defenseless woman being attacked by a mob.”


Those doing the stoning are male supremacists. Those kidnapping, raping and selling young girls and women into forced marriages are indoctrinated with male supremacy. But this doctrine of male supremacy is not a phenomena limited to fundamentalist Islam, it is a doctrine that permeates all fundamentalist religious ideology and practice (from Buddhism to Judaism) and permeates and is expressed at all levels of society. Fundamentalist religion is not the sole repository of male supremacy—it is though the ideological foundation for this indoctrination in society at large.


The daughters and son of light have much to fight for and fight against. There is hope though as we begin to see changes within religious institutions. Markers of this hope are seen in general society by women taking their deserved positions of leadership, of access to professions and work, and for equality of pay and in religious circles, through women being ordained or rising to other leadership roles, and in policy (rule) changes regarding women’s freedom of choice.


There is a vision espoused in Kabbalah that the coming of a new consciousness is predicated on the recognition of the equality of the feminine and masculine—male and female—women and men. May that light shine forth not only from the face of the moon, but be championed by all those who are now ready to let go of the ideology of male supremacy.


“ Make no mistake” reads the headline in the Washington Post, “Michelle Obama just made a bold political statement.” I n a country with a very strict dress code for women (face and hair covered, and long, flowing robes) who are not allowed to drive and who live under a system of male guardianship, Michelle Obama went with a flowing blue top, black pants and no head covering.



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