Oliver Sacks on the beauty of Sabbath
Oliver Sacks, physician, neurologist, shy man, sensitive clinician and brilliant reporter of fine details of human behavior, died in 2015. This four-part essay, published in the year of his death, was the doctor’s final pass back through the important parts of his life. Over the years he made peace with his family, found friends and satisfying work that occupied him completely. At the end he rested his active mind in the Jewish genius idea of Sabbath. The social and religious practice of keeping Sabbath was a memory of his childhood. Sacks returned to the peace of that memory in the months before his death.
As an adolescent, Sacks admitted homosexual feelings to his Orthodox Jewish parents, both of whom were physicians. He pleaded that he had not acted on those feelings. Nevertheless, based on their religious commitments, his parents disapproved. His mother condemned him in heart-breaking terms.
So Sacks left the religion of his ancestors that would not accept him as he was. World War II scattered the close Jewish community he knew as a child. After medical school at Oxford he moved to California and found support in the weightlifting and motorcycle communities on Muscle Beach.
For fifty years Sacks was a professor of neurology at New York University. There he translated clinical notes into a fascinating human narrative. At the end of his life his healthy mind and expansive human heart made peace with his religious tradition, in part at least, and returned him to good memories of human community and quiet belonging:
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 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. p. 45