Why I want to live and die like Oliver Sacks

My tears surprise me. I am reading Oliver Sacks’ New York Times op-ed (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/19/opinion/oliver-sacks-on-learning-he-has-terminal-cancer.html?_r=0) where he shares that his cancer has metastasized to his liver and in a few months he will leave this world.

These are not the tears I cry when I hear of a young mother stricken with incurable cancer, or a teenager plucked from this world tragically before his prime. In his 81 years Sacks has achieved dazzling success and acclaim as both a scientist and an author.  His ground-breaking discoveries in the field of neuro-science have transformed modern medicine’s understanding of the brain. Hailed by The New York Times as “the poet laureate of medicine,” Sacks will leave the world of both medicine and literature infinitely richer.

It is the fullness of his life which moves me. It is specifically the fact that he stands facing death with not a whisper of regret in his words. Quite the opposite, his words are dripping with fulfilment and gratitude. Till his last day, he chooses to embrace the world: “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me,” he writes. “I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”

I cry because I, too, will one day stand at the edge of my life. As unwilling as I am to think of death, I know it will inevitably happen. But what terrifies me most is to stand at the brink of my life and to have not lived fully. I am so full at the moment, brimming with dreams and plans and hopes and goals. I want so much – for myself, for my relationships, for my children. Yet I am constantly unsure that I will get there. I find myself pushing off my dreams to another day.

Oliver Sacks does not live in the world of “another day.” He faces death with courage and serenity because he is living a life replete with vitality. To stand at the edge of the this world, looking back with regrets and saying to yourself, I had dreams but I was afraid. I held grudges because I was too proud to let it go. I wanted to do so much but I got distracted. I thought there was more time – that is frightening.

Often one hears of stories of near-fatal events where a person was miraculously saved from an illness or an accident. A bucket list is written and dramatic changes to their lives are made. Relationships are prioritized, old feuds are settled and a heightened awareness of purpose and the sacredness of each moment is awakened. Do we have to wait for a tragedy to realign our goals?

Each of us is born with infinite potential for greatness. Yet we hold back. The what-ifs, the have-tos, the should-haves often cloud our choices. Sometimes we don’t examine our choices fully. We let the expectations and social norms dictate. Our dreams remained buried among fears and complacency.

So reading Sacks’ reflections as he nears the end of his time in the world, I am envious. He is confident that he has given his all. “But 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; I have read and traveled and thought and written.” To be overflowing with gratitude in the face of death can only be a result of life lived with constant appreciation of the blessings.

So with the courage, engagement and creativity that he lived his life, he approaches his death. The self he has cultivated – the self of love and gratitude is what he will carry through the rest of the days on this planet.

The tears I shed tell of a profound yearning for such a life. I imagine of myself at the end of my days as an old woman. My limbs may be frail and weary; and my face may be wrinkled, but I dream that I will hold a deep satisfaction that I gave my all. That I was brave and I loved and contributed what only I was able to. I want to know without a shadow of a doubt that I did all I could have done.

I walked away from my biggest bonus…and never looked back

I hated my first job. I worked as a credit risk analyst in one of the country’s major financial institutions. I was the envy of all my friends, and I was highly overpaid. But I detested it. The work was boring, repetitive but mostly meaningless. I hated trying to make even money for shareholders by squeezing more interest repayments out of our debtors. But I learned a lot about myself there. I learned how important it is for me to be doing work which I deemed impacting on society. I learned that my passion is for bettering the world, not analyzing data. So when I found out about a new opportunity, I called immediately. It was for a social development for-profit company which was filled with people even more passionate than I was about changing the world. I was hooked, and when they phoned to offer me the job just hours after the interview, I was thrilled. I could not believe my luck and could not wait to resign.

My boss had known how unhappy I was and was thrilled that I had found something I was excited about. Then just before I emailed my official resignation, he called me into his office. “Eli”, he said in his strong Indian accent,  “ Bonuses are going to be paid out in six weeks, and I wanted to let you know that you will be getting a bonus. You worked hard for us this year, so thank you”. My eyes went wide and I nearly fell off my chair. I hadn’t even thought of my bonus and assumed I wouldn’t be getting one. I hadn’t achieved as much as I thought my potential was, and didn’t think my boss approved either. Yet obviously I was wrong. Suddenly my perfect plan got derailed.

The game changed. My new employer wanted me to start in a month. However, if I wasn’t employed in my current position on the date bonuses would be paid out, I wouldn’t be eligible for my annual reward. And it was not a small amount of money.

I had a big decision to make. I always believed that money was not the defining factor in my life. Sure, I like pretty things and want to be comfortable and secure, but to me having a meaningful life was more important than my bank balance. I was not prepared to work killer hours and sacrifice time with my family, friends, my community outreach and volunteer work and quality of life. I had grown up with six siblings and parents who served the community – as teachers, counsellors,and leaders. Combined with that and having seven kids, money was never something we had an abundance of. I never felt deprived, but money was always an issue. There were no overseas trips; we wore hand me downs, and had to choose one extra mural. Yet my childhood was happy and joy-filled and abundant. My parents are some of the happiest people I have ever known, and despite not being wealthy, I always knew my parents were extraordinary. Over and over, people would tell me how amazing they are and how they had helped them through difficult times. Despite their limited finances, they impact the community in a big and are people who led by example. They sacrificed their time and financial gain for the benefit of others.  And this is what was ingrained in me. I wanted to be like them – to be changing the world every day. I always knew that I too would value meaning over money. If it ever came down to choosing, I was confident that the choice would be automatic.

Until I was offered the money or the box. For the first time, this value was confronted in a cataclysmic way. I emailed my new employer and explained the situation. I told them the truth – that my husband was returning to school the coming year, and the extra money would help us substantially. Yet they would not budge. I had to start in four weeks, or they could not guarantee the position. On a deeper level, they wanted me to show that I was prepared to give up financial freedom to join their vision. I was torn asunder. The golden bonus check gleamed in the horizon. I had worked so hard for this money. I had suffered for it. I applied myself. The new job and the hope it offered tugged at my heartstrings. A future where I could work in a place with people devoted to bettering themselves and society. I would be surrounded by risk takers and dreamers and passionate people. My work would take on meaning and joy.

Sleepless nights followed. Hundreds of hours of debating and rehashing were spent with anyone who would listen. I spoke myself hoarse. This money could help us. We could start saving. We could take a vacation. I was gutted. There was no right answer.

And then it hit me. Driving to work one morning, I realized that in ten years, the money would be forgotten. If I stayed for the bonus, then I would probably spend the money on some beautiful clothes, take an awesome vacation with my husband, and save the rest. It would not really make a dent in our lives. We could not afford a house with it, nor did we want it. 

Life was offering me a choice – do I want the money, or the unknown. The money was a finite amount, offering more spending ability. The new job was a way of life, a road inwards to living my dream.

So I did it. I gave up the bonus and resigned. And once I did it, I never looked back. Never once in the past years when our finances were stretched did I think to myself “if only I had taken that bonus”. Even in the last few months when I was on unpaid maternity leave and my husband was unemployed did I ever think with longing about that bonus cheque. Once I decided to leave, I gave the bonus money up fully. Ironically, the job did not work out. But I do not regret my decision for one second. My values were tested, and I proved to myself and the world that money will not be the ultimate decider of my destiny, and nor would I sacrifice my dreams for dollars.