“A time when someone or something starts to seem less successful or important, because another person or thing has become more successful or important than they are”
The word comes from ekleipsis, which in ancient Greek means abandonment.
We are all celestial bodies, alone in space.
We are susceptible to each other’s gravitational pull. We can emanate tremendous heat and power. We can enlighten each other. We circle around each other admiringly, on incomprehensible, invisible orbits, a beautiful, cosmic dance that could surely last for eternity.
A great friendship, wrote Martin Buber, “breaches the barriers of a lofty solitude, subdues its strict law, and throws a bridge from self-being to self-being across the abyss of dread of the universe."
We look for those bridges everywhere. We cling to whatever makes us feel less full of dread, including work, alcohol, sex, sports, spirituality. More than three-quarters of Americans believe in angels. Because there is just so much terrifying space out there. When asked what humans are most afraid of, Kierkegaard would reply: “We are most afraid of nothing.”
We cling to each other. And inevitably at some point our shadows put each other in the shade. Our personal orbits clash, or one gets skewed by the strong magnetic field of the other. We lose our freedom, our sense of self. Maybe we even collide, or end up spewing smouldering, deadly meteors at each other in the divorce courts, or becoming engulfed in each other's flames in front of a live TV audience. Love can tear us apart.
Faced with either being alone or risking getting burned from being too close, many will willingly settle for some kind of cosy compromise midway between the two, half in relationship and half out, a standoff—somewhat connected, partially married, semi-sedated.
But perhaps it’s possible to have a different arrangement, one that involves learning how to occupy two polarities at the same time. And one polarity depends on the other: We can’t learn to engage with others deeply and meaningfully unless we are also prepared to learn to engage deeply and meaningfully with our very own self. That requires an encounter with our loneliness; a willingness, every day, to confront the unforgiving, ever-moving edge of our isolation. To step into the unknown.
Writes Irvin Yalom: “Each of us is alone in existence. Yet aloneness can be shared in such a way that love compensates for the pain of isolation.”
Friendships, partners, crushes, infatuations, hookups, one-offs—they all come and go. We give and we take love along the way. But your relationship with yourself? That, my friend, is for ever. Can you accept who you are, and who you are becoming? Can you live with all the light and shade, the self-criticism, the shame and the guilt and the awful memories? Can you love all the imperfections and faults and weaknesses in you? And in other people, too? And can you do all this knowing for sure that we will never really know ourselves, and never really know another?
The historic blood red moon last night is not an apocalyptic omen signalling the end of days. It is not a reason to get spooked, hesitate, and lose out, as Nicias did in the Second Battle of Syracuse in 413. It is instead a good omen.
Maybe you have been eclipsed. You feel hurt, betrayed, disappointed, unappreciated, abandoned, ignored, rejected, ghosted. The sun will rise again, it will be a new day, and you will see everything differently, as if for the first time. The red moon has already faded, but its message remains indelibly etched across the sky: never again will you allow anyone or anything to eclipse your relationship with you.
“If I am not for myself, who will be?
And if I am only for myself, what am I?"
In 1817, in a letter to his brother, the poet John Keats wrote about how people of achievement had a quality he called “negative capability.” They were capable, he said, “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Negative capability is an acknowledgement of complexity, a mature respect of life’s shades of grey, an understanding that despite what the strident headline, indignant tweet or demanding placard says, the situation is probably not quite so simple.
“We can never know in the beginning, in giving ourselves to a person, to a work, to a marriage or to a cause, exactly what kind of love we are involved with. When we demand a certain specific kind of reciprocation before the revelation has flowered completely we find ourselves disappointed and bereaved and in that grief may miss the particular form of love that is actually possible but that did not meet our initial and too specific expectations. Feeling bereft we take our identity as one who is disappointed in love, our almost proud disappointment preventing us from seeing the lack of reciprocation from the person or the situation as simply a difficult invitation into a deeper and as yet unrecognizable form of affection.”
A digression: Do you feel lucky today?
Richard Wiseman, a magician turned popular psychologist, conducted some research on luck. He advertised for people who considered themselves very lucky, or very unlucky and received many replies. The lucky people seemingly had led charmed, successful, happy lives. They were always in the right place at the right time, and good things inevitably just happened to fall in their lap. The unlucky people? The opposite. An extraordinary catalogue of calamities, disastrous romances, failed businesses, missed connections, lost harvests.
Wiseman conducted a series of tests on these people. One was to count the number of photos in a newspaper. The unlucky people took a few minutes to complete the task. The lucky people took just seconds. Why? Because on page 2, half the page was devoted to a notice that said, in large letters: “Stop counting: There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” The “unlucky” people, blinded by the certainty of the task, never saw it.
According to Wiseman, people make their own luck. The house of uncertainty holds no fear for lucky people.
Which side are you on?
Our brains have two hemispheres: the intuitive, holistic, creative, transcendent “right brain,” and the more logical, rigid, pedantic, detail-focused “left brain.” Iain McGilchrist calls the former the “Master” and the latter the “Emissary.” The problem, he says, is that the Emissary is supposed to be in service to the Master, but somehow he has taken over the controls. As a result, he has profoundly changed us—and our world. All power, says McGilchrist, now rests with the Emissary “who, however gifted, is effectively an ambitious regional bureaucrat with his own interests at heart. Meanwhile the Master...is led away in chains.” (A simplistic binary split of the brain into left and right perhaps shows a lack of negative capability—it ignores all the shades of grey matter. But we'll stick with it.)
Instead of working together, our bird-brained inner accountant turned on our wise and thoughtful inner poet and, in a desperate ontological battle, the latter was slain. The poet, needless to say, embraced negative capability; she lived it. The accountant however, clipboard, ruler and calculator in hand, can tolerate only certainty. He has created a fragmented, western world of technology, mechanisation and bureaucracy, a world of alienation, where love is hard to find, and beauty gets bulldozed, a world of spreadsheets instead of sonnets, a world where everything is measured, itemized, indexed, where the little picture matters and the big picture doesn’t.
Einstein had a sign hanging in his office which read: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”
Doubt in the consulting room
The Emissary’s hand can be seen in every detail of our lives—in tax returns, Ofsted reports, market research. In doomed attempts to deconstruct jokes or works of art. And, as I wrote earlier this week, in the field of mental health.
The Emissary wants to shoehorn your troubles into a neat, clearly-labelled pigeonhole. He wants to eradicate your symptoms with a drug and, if you insist, a bit of talking in the form of some short-term cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). A little adjustment to your levels, a bit of soldering under the bonnet, and you should be good to go—back to your spreadsheets.
If it were that simple, we would not be human. On the first page of the introduction in her book The Impossibility of Knowing, psychotherapist Jackie Gerrard writes: “I am sure that I, like many of my colleagues, started my training eager to learn and to know, and I have subsequently spent the years post qualification learning that I do not ‘know,’ cannot ‘know,’ and, indeed, should not ‘know’ . . . by saying I do not ‘know,’ I am continually endeavouring to hold a state of mind that can tolerate remaining open, bearing uncertainty, and avoiding, wherever possible, omnipotence and omniscience.”
Not “knowing” is not the same as indecision or ignorance. In Tales of Un-knowing, existential therapist Ernesto Spinelli says therapists should aspire to be un-knowing—as opposed to “unknowing”—they should “attempt to remain as open as possible to whatever presents itself in our relational experience.”
The Emissary therapist reaches for theories, models, personality tests and questionnaires about your mental state so that he can enter your score on a spreadsheet. He reaches for the manual to find a clinical diagnosis such as “generalized anxiety disorder” or “oppositional defiance disorder” and some techniques to make it go away. American existential therapist Irving Yalom marvels that anyone can take diagnoses seriously, adding: “Even the most liberal system of psychiatric nomenclature does violence to the being of another. If we relate to people believing that we can categorize them, we will neither identify nor nurture the parts, the vital parts, of the other that transcends category.”
The Master therapist, by contrast, see you—all the vital parts, all of you. All her senses are alive to you and your experience of distress. This level of presence and empathy was memorably expressed by British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, who wrote that every therapeutic session should be approached “without memory and without desire.” Even the therapist’s wish for their client to be, say, less depressed is, according to Bion, an imposition that will cloud that therapist’s mind. He believed that in every session there had to be a genuine open-mindedness and freedom.
All too often therapist and client conspire to flee from uncertainty. The therapist who claims to be “sorted” might be cut off from their own vulnerability and woundedness, and perhaps not be the best guide to accompany a client as they traverse a landscape of despair.
Integrative psychotherapist Diana Voller writes: “The tension of the experience of being in uncertainty brings the person of the therapist well and truly back into the therapy.” The therapist, too, needs “the scariness and excitement of being willing to be in the unknown, allowing oneself to be temporarily overwhelmed, feel stupid for a while...gaining new perspectives and growing.” (I am grateful to Voller for a presentation she made on negative capability years ago in London—thank you.)
Increasing your negative capability
So perhaps we would be better people if we could cultivate a little more negative capability in our lives. There'd be more good things like luck, love, empathy. Negative capability transforms a profane world into one of poetry.
For Keats, ways to cultivate more negative capability were: “books, fruit, French wine, fine weather and a little music out of doors played by someone I do not know.”
Voller suggests that films, TV, art, literature and the theatre are all “rich everyday resources for choosing to be temporarily unsettled and ready to be ultimately changed by other ways of seeing things.”
Here are 9 tips for a greater capacity for uncertainty:
1. Have therapy
There’s no better way to experience the discomfort of uncertainty, to encounter those frontiers of yourself that you have for long retreated from, than to be a client. The consulting room is a safe place to explore your distress, your history, your way of being in the world, all your secrets and shadows. Processing such dark matter affords some control over it rather than the reverse.
2. Keep a journal
Another great way of exploring, of cultivating a better relationship with our self—or rather, disparate selves. Start the conversation.
Now and again, put away the instruction manual, or the sheet music, or the cookbook, and just do it.
4. Meet new people
Hurl yourself into unfamiliar social situations. Interact with a wide range of people. Richard Wiseman wrote of how some of his “lucky” participants often sought out ways to force them to meet different people. One noticed that whenever he went to a party, he tended to talk to the same type of people. To disrupt this routine, he now thinks of a colour before a social event and then speaks to people wearing that colour of clothing.
5. Get lost
Take a different route to work, take your watch off, travel without a map, go somewhere new on holiday, camp in the wilderness, explore a very different country, travel alone. Develop a sense of what psychoanalyst Nina Coltart called xenophilia. Lose yourself in nature. Gaze at trees, clouds, thunderstorms. Waste time.
6. Spend time with children
Learn from their streams of consciousness and ability to play, and to be spontaneous and joyful and un-selfconscious. They haven’t yet learned, as we have, to filter, to not see. Negative capability is the antidote to old age. Viewpoints, like arteries or neural pathways, can become clogged, fewer, narrower, less fluid.
7. Have new experiences
Sign up for that retreat, workshop, meetup.com event. Do things that you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t because they scare you a little. Try different genres of art and music and film and food.
8. Be with your body
Dance. Play. Sing. Act. Exercise. Move. Do yoga. Touch and be touched. Our psychology affects our body—the reverse can also be true: putting your body into unfamiliar, freeing positions can also free your mind.
9. Stop making lists!
Ultimately, negative capability is a stance, a state of mind, an awareness. A willingness to give up the life you planned in order to have the life that is waiting for you, as American mythologist Joseph Campbell so succinctly put it.
It’s not easy. There are times when we need to be on autopilot, or seek refuge from the world under a giant metaphorical duvet. But we are only fully alive in those fleeting moments when we are brave enough to throw away all the old rules and maps and guidebooks and lists and embrace living in a state of uncertainty, eyes wide open to the world, engaging our fluid self with a fluid environment in original, creative and spontaneous ways.
I’m pretty sure there some truth in that.
But of course, I can’t be certain.
Yesterday the newly-elected Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn unveiled his shadow cabinet. Part of the line up was a position new to British politics: shadow “Minister for Mental Health.” Liverpool Wavertree Labour MP Luciana Berger, 34, assumes the role. She was first elected to Parliament in 2010, served as shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change, and then shadow Minister for Public Health, campaigning for the NHS.
Regardless of where you or I stand on the political spectrum, this seems like an eminently sensible idea. Partly thanks to the efforts of former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in the last government, mental health issues have become a major political talking point lately and featured prominently in the election campaigns this past spring. But actions speak louder than cheap political rhetoric: over the last Parliament, mental health service budgets, already on their knees, were slashed by more than 8 percent. Services are inadequate. Last year, 7,000 vulnerable people in the U.K. with mental health problems—a lot of them children—ended up being held in police cells, because there were no beds available.
Freedom of information requests by Berger earlier this year showed that NHS clinical commissioning groups on average spend just 10 percent of their budget on mental health, which accounts for almost a quarter of the NHS’ burden of disease.
One in four people in the U.K. experience mental ill-health every year, causing an annual loss of £26bn to the economy.
Berger said: “Mental health should be treated no differently to physical health. People with mental illness shouldn't have to expect different standards of care simply because of where they live.”
In a speech in Parliament in February, Corbyn said: “All of us can go through depression; all of us can go through those experiences. Every single one of us in this Chamber knows people who have gone through it, and has visited people who have been in institutions and have fully recovered and gone back to work and continued their normal life.”
On Sunday, his first morning as leader, Corbyn snubbed the BBC’s Andrew Marr show and instead visited his local NHS mental health trust, Camden & Islington.
The ghost in the machine
One priority for any politician who wants to improve mental health services in the U.K. should be to promote a much greater diversity of available treatments. The NHS is far too therapeutically monocultural, wedded to the symptom-treatment medical model of clinical psychology, one that attempts to apply simplified, uniform labels to the vast diversity and complexity of human psychological distress, and a one-size-fits-all miracle cure-all in the shape of short-term cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). Psychotherapy and other more holistic and sophisticated approaches get squeezed out. Too often the notion of “stepped care” ends up being just one step—and not a very big one, either.
For more than two millennia, from the time of Socrates, psychology was essentially a philosophical endeavour. With the dawn of the Enlightenment, however, the Industrial Revolution, and a new age of reason which pledged its allegiance to rationality and logic, it abandoned its roots in favour of modernist ideas of “science.”
This shift was especially marked by the publication in 1913 of John B. Watson’s influential manifesto of radical behaviourism, which recognized “no dividing line between man and brute.” Watson was only concerned with the observable, measurable human responses to stimuli. What went on in between, in that messy “black box” of the human psyche, was of no concern. For the past century, this kind of “positivist” psychology that treats humans as machines has prevailed. It is still taught widely in universities. It directs much flawed, quantitative industry research that is influential yet of limited practical value to psychotherapists (the French existentialist Merleau-Ponty regarded the “science” of psychology as “always both naïve and at the same time dishonest”).
The new modernism is neuroscience. Brain scans are fascinating, but as explanations of minds, souls or consciousness, they are about as useful as a map of London is as an explanation of London. These neuroimages are but the flickering shadows on the walls of Plato’s Cave. They are fixated on the machine instead of the ghost in the machine.
At its best, psychotherapy dances with the ghost as well as the machine. It rejects attempts to delimit, confine or manualize the complicated business of being human and looks instead below the surface, considering historical causes of symptoms, unconscious and conscious motivations, intrapsychic and interpersonal conflicts, and environmental constraints and challenges. It embraces uncertainty (Voltaire: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition. But certainty is absurd”).
In a postmodern world, there are no absolute, objective truths when it comes to human beings and their psyches. Subjectivity rules, and my truth, my reality, my experience of being anxious, depressed, bipolar, schizophrenic, suicidal, disabled and so on might be entirely different to yours.
As Nietzsche famously wrote, there are no facts, only interpretations.
The consulting room should not be a place where we go to learn how to live up to a CBT therapist’s modernist standards of how to think and behave. It is, instead, a place where we go to wake up, to discover our subjectivity, our beauty, our power—to find ourselves.
One photograph. A little boy in a red T-shirt, blue shorts and tiny trainers. He is face down on a beach in Turkey. The toddler, just 3 years old, was Aylan Kurdi. He drowned alongside his brother and mother.
Aylan was just one story in the huge current refugee crisis—a mass exodus of 4 million Syrians attempting to flee war and the occupation of their homeland by Islamic fundamentalists. More than 2,600 have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean for the imagined sanctuary of Europe. In stark contrast to countries like Germany and Sweden, the response from the British government has been pitiful: only 216 Syrian refugees have thus far qualified for the official relocation program and Prime Minister David Cameron originally said the total would not rise above 1,000. “I don’t think there is an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees,” he said, thereby blithely consigning thousands to staying home to face persecution, torture, imprisonment and death, or else risking escaping on leaky, overcrowded boats.
The number of forcibly displaced people around the world reached a staggering 59.5 million by the end of 2014, compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago. The massive increase in people in search of refuge over past decades is no accident. It is the direct result of globalisation, a Third World crisis born to a significant degree of First World politics. As long as there are great disparities between economic, social and political conditions between countries in the world, migration in large numbers is inevitable.
The easiest way to justify such a profoundly unequal and unfair world order is to blame its victims, through a process of “othering” or what Edward Said calls “Orientalism.” Dominant powers establish “truth” about both themselves and those over whom they exert power. “We” are surely rational, developed, humane and good, while the “other”—foreigner, immigrant, refugee, asylum seeker, eastern European, Muslim, African, Asian, black, nonwhite—is portrayed as inherently barbaric, inferior, backward, aberrant, criminal, corrupt, violent, poor, lazy and dirty. The mobilization of such negative stereotypes by politicians and press in the U.K. has been going on for generations. Both of the two main political parties compete in a dismal race to the bottom for the perceived electoral asset of “toughness” toward outsiders, while sections of the British media, which have a long, horrible history of xenophobia, compete to see which can attract the greatest number of readers by publishing the most hostile, fearmongering stories. A columnist in The Sun recently called the refugees “cockroaches”; the Daily Mail wondered why the government could stop Hitler but not “a few thousand exhausted migrants.”
As Noam Chomsky writes: “Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”
And then, on Wednesday, a photograph appears, the corpse of a little boy, washed up on the shores of “Fortress Europe.” And through the democracy of social media, the public responds, magnificently, with great humanity, putting the politicians and tabloids to shame with campaigns (eg. #refugeeswelcome), fundraising and relief runs, petitions, marches, banners at football matches and all kinds of extraordinary, individual offers of help.
“I’ve worked for the UNHCR for more than seven years and, to be honest, this is the most generous response I’ve seen in terms of the way it has touched people and their willingness to offer help on a very personal level,” said Laura Padoan of the UN refugee agency.
Therapy—for better or for worse?
In psychological terms, the demonizing “othering” process is called projection. All the unpleasant parts of us are ascribed instead to the “other” such that we can preserve a self-image of purity. This happens individually, between us, and it happens collectively, between nations. What Jung called “the shadow” does not live in foreigners from Third World. It lives in all of us.
Psychotherapy, too, has a tendency to project, to “other,” to blame the victims. Social environment psychologists like Erich Fromm, Harry Stack Sullivan and Karen Horney have pointed out that so much human psychological distress and suffering is born of dire circumstances, the result of a ravenous capitalism machine that mankind used to master but has now enslaved us.
Rather than looking for insight, the late British psychologist David Smail argued that therapists should look for “outsight”—an awareness of a person’s environment, of the oppressions of a deeply-unfair social order; an indefensible hierarchical power structure that keeps people down.
Not surprisingly, studies have shown considerably higher rates of psychological distress among refugees, including PTSD, depression and somatic complaints compared to the general population or other kinds of migrant. Let’s hope that the traumatized refugees who do manage to arrive at our green and pleasant land aren’t then exposed to the kind of counselling that invites them to consider their dysfunctional “negative automatic thoughts” or unhelpful “repeating patterns” of behaviour.
Writes Smail: “I can think of no mainstream approach to psychological therapy which doesn’t harbour at its core a humourless authoritarianism, a moralistic urge to control, that has the ultimate effect of causing infinitely more pain than it could ever conceivably hope to cure.”
The ways that counsellors and psychotherapists seek and work with both insight and “outsight,” the extent to which they “other” their clients, and the power dynamics in the consulting room determine whether they are part of the problem or part of the solution. Therapy, for better or for worse, operates at the intersection of the personal, the professional and the political,
In his 1955 book The Sane Society, Erich Fromm concludes: “In the nineteenth century the problem was that God is dead; in the twentieth century the problem is that man is dead.” The future, he argued, will either see a grand, mutual destruction—or else a rediscovery of our shared humanity.
Sometimes we are woken up to that shared humanity. We meet someone who rocks us out of our complacency. Or something dreadful happens to us that makes us see things afresh. Or we see a devastating photograph that completely stops us in our tracks.
The image of Aylan’s lifeless little body cuts through all the stereotypes, the xenophobia, the UN reports, the statistics of war (the greater the number of people suffering, the greater the likelihood of a collapse of compassion). He could have been your child, or a friend’s child or any child. He could have been you.
We look at that photograph and we feel outraged. We are impelled to do something. We might not get it right. We might be clumsy and make mistakes. But we try to come out from behind our own borders and boundaries and barricades. We join forces, we connect, we act. We are One World. And so, instead of “othering,” we tiptoe towards some kind of “togethering.”
• How you can help
Oliver Sacks, 82, died on Sunday. The New York-based British neurologist spent a lifetime working with complex cases, along the outer margins of human experience, at the intersection of brain, mind and the mysterious electricity that runs through our lives and connects us all.
Sacks was a gifted and generous writer, too, and shared what he knew in a wealth of highly-accessible books and articles, mostly in the form of extraordinary case studies—dispatches from the far-flung fringes of consciousness (including his own, such as his memorable memoir to weekend drug-taking during the 1960s).
He wrote of bizarre cases of brain damage; savants, amnesiacs, colourblind artists; a surgeon with Tourette’s, a man who developed a passion for music after being struck by lightning, and—the title of his bestselling book--The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
Many neurologists lack Sacks’ sense of wonder. They are fixated on the machinery of the brain; Sacks was interested in the ghost in the machine, too. In his lifetime there has been an avalanche of new neuropsychological knowledge born of extraordinary advances in functional neuroimaging techniques. Brain scans are fascinating, but perhaps tell us little of human souls. They are the flickering shadows on the walls of Plato’s Cave.
An atheist by disposition, Sacks nevertheless had many encounters through his work with something larger, with the numinous. He was perhaps a kindred spirit to Albert Einstein, who described himself as both an atheist and a devoutly religious man.
Also evident in Sacks’ writing is his humanity; a deep compassion for his patients and an appreciation for the courage and dignity they brought to their peculiar, individual challenges. And for the never-ending creativity, resourcefulness and power of human brains, minds and spirits. Writing in The New York Times on the first day of 2011, Sacks said: “I have seen hundreds of patients with various deficits — strokes, Parkinson’s and even dementia — learn to do things in new ways, whether consciously or unconsciously, to work around those deficits. That the brain is capable of such radical adaptation raises deep questions. To what extent are we shaped by, and to what degree do we shape, our own brains? And can the brain’s ability to change be harnessed to give us greater cognitive powers? The experiences of many people suggest that it can.”
In fact, deficits in one area can stimulate extraordinary growth in another. Sacks wrote in An Anthropologist on Mars that illnesses and disorders “can play a paradoxical role in bringing out latent powers, developments, evolutions, forms of life that might never be seen or even be imaginable in their absence.”
There are many examples of this notion that you need grit in the oyster to make a pearl, that roses grow out of the dirt, that some disadvantage can create unexpected advantage. In the book David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell speaks of “desirable difficulties," citing one study that claims a third of entrepreneurs have dyslexia. “We see so many entrepreneurs who have dyslexia," he writes. “When you talk to them, they will tell you that they succeeded not in spite of their disability, but because of it. For them, they view their disability as desirable.”
Many great pioneers, creators and agents of social change have personal histories of hardship and trauma. Life’s hurdles can trip us up. But they can also make us extremely good at jumping.
Sacks' personal hurdle was his sexuality. Tragically, he felt he had to keep the fact that he was gay hidden from view. For more than half his adult life he was celibate, and alone, only finding a partner and falling in love at the age of 77. Perhaps such a famine in his personal life was not entirely unrelated to the extraordinary feast of his work and other interests.
Wake up call
Dr. Sacks is perhaps best known for his work with patients who had spent decades frozen in a catatonic state caused by encephalitic lethargica. He describes entering a ward of such patients in 1966: “I suppose the first impression was that I had entered a museum or waxwork gallery,” Sacks told NPR in 1985 (it’s worth listening to the interview to get a measure of his eloquence). “They were motionless figures who were transfixed in strange postures — sometimes rather dramatic postures, sometimes not — with an absolute absence of motion, without any hint of motion.”
Sacks was able to defrost these utterly frozen patients, to bring them back to life, sometimes quite suddenly, by administering the-then brand new Parkinson’s drug Levadopa or synthetic dopamine. Like Sleeping Beauty, these patients woke up. Their experiences became the basis for Sacks’ 1973 book Awakenings, which was adapted into a film starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro, and the Harold Pinter play A Kind of Alaska.
“It seemed to be the dawn of a new day, the birth of a new life,” said Sacks of the resurrections he performed. “There was great joy and a sort of lyrical delight in the world which had been given back. I remember one patient stroking leaves and looking at the night lights of New York on the horizon and everything was a source of delight and gratitude. This was the quality at first. But then, there were problems....”
The problems, Sacks goes on to explain, were ones of excess, going from one extreme to another. “The patients had had not enough life, not enough movement, not enough emotion, not enough dopamine, and now they started to have too much, and things started to run away.”
Most patients crashed and burned, but eventually climbed down from their manic, frenzied highs to reach some kind of balance, a middle way, a peace. They became philosophical about their lives.
“I think illness and deep illness may force one to think, even if one hasn't been a thinking person before,” continued Sacks. “Many of the patients seemed to be poetic, to have become poetic. Auden has a phrase about being ‘wounded into art’ and I sometimes felt that was the case with many of the patients.”
They came to accept that they had been asleep through much of their lives, and were grateful at last for the opportunity to live.
How many of us on this earth, too, have spent lengthy spells of our lives “asleep” in various ways? Who is too busy, afraid, angry, defended, depressed, anxious, stressed, numbed, stuck or otherwise diminished to see and to feel and to be? To be fully alive?
Two weeks before he died, Sacks wrote a final essay in The New York Times entitled “Sabbath.” It concludes: “And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. 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.”
Before we too find ourselves on our deathbed, before it’s all too late, we could all use some awakening. There is still time to engage and be moved and grateful for the wonders and experiences of the world. To live perhaps a bit more like Sacks, who described himself in February as a man of “extreme immoderation in all my passions.”
We should all be stroking leaves.
1. What is a psychopath?