Imperfectionist Books Quotes

Oliver Sacks on Gratitude

During the last two years of his life, Oliver Sacks, called the “Poet Laureate of Medicine,” wrote a series of essays on life, aging, and mortality for The New York Times.

These four essays were posthumously published in his book Gratitude, a quick but incredibly touching collection that remains with you long after you finish reading.

You can find each essay online, but they should be read together in one sitting. Perhaps twice.

In this collection, we include our favorite quotes from his quartet of essays:

  • “Mercury” originally titled “The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding.)” on the wonders and pleasures of old age:

“At 11, I could say “I am sodium” (element 11), and now at 79, I am gold.” -Oliver Sacks (Gratitude)

“At 11, I could say “I am sodium” (element 11), and now at 79, I am gold.”

“At nearly eighty, with a scattering of medical and surgical problems, none disabling, I feel glad to be alive – ‘I’m glad I’m not dead!’ sometimes bursts out of me when the weather is perfect…I’m gladful that I have experienced many things – some wonderful, some horrible.”

“At eighty, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age…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, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.”

 

  • My Own Life“, influenced by David Hume’s “My Own Life“, written shortly after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer:

“It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way that I can.”

“It is the 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.” -Oliver Sacks (Gratitude)

“It is the 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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“My predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return…Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.” -Oliver Sacks (Gratitude)

“My predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return…Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

 

  • My Periodic Table“, on facing death, told through the lens of his lifelong love of the periodic table:

“My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience – and death.”

“I almost certainly will not see my polonium (eighty-fourth) birthday, nor would I want any polonium around, with its intense murderous radioactivity. But then, at the other end of my table – my periodic table – I have a beautifully machined piece of beryllium (element 4) to remind me of my childhood, and of how long ago my soon-to-end life began.”

 

  • Sabbath“, on his sexuality, Orthodox upbringing, and addiction & recovery, published just two weeks before his death:

“I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may in good conscience, rest.”

 

Pick up a copy of Gratitude today.  Consider pairing it with The Road to Character, to read more about living to develop your eulogy virtues or with this beautiful talk on gratefulness by Brother David Steindl-Rast.

 

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