“As we suffered with a friend his deep moments of loneliness and grief, that awful renunciation of life itself, we each of us acquired, almost instinctually, a deeper and richer capacity for joy, for humour, for laughter. When you have so little you find joy in insignificant things.” – Brian Keenan, An Evil Cradling
It is common for us to tell ourselves, “I can’t do math.”, “I can’t write poetry.”, “I can’t etc…” and it is only so because we are limited by our environment.
I refer to environment strictly from the viewpoint of an average middle-class citizen of a first world country, as it is not the purpose of this post to consider those limited by poor circumstance.
For most average middle-class citizens, our lives flow in general monotony: work – home – work – home. We live in a structured economy and society that enables us to have regular incomes, regular spending and regular lives. This is why we have become quite regular too. We are predictable, functional and exceedingly normal. Our environment has shaped us so.
Hence we shudder to consider acquiring new skills or knowledge that demand commitment or a leap of faith. How many of us will start learning piano in our 40s or even in our 20s? We have work to do and money to churn. How many of us take up a new sport in our 30s? We have enough exercise running after our kids.
To take this inertia further, I propose that we have an inability to create new skills and knowledge.
Consider this: You are locked in a cell, and have absolutely nothing to entertain yourself with. Day after day, you edge on the madness of boredom. In order to occupy your mind, would you turn over what you have learnt and create something, anything?
Such was the experience of Brian Keenan, an Irish teacher who was unfortunately kidnapped in Lebanon. Together with journalist, John McCarthy, they devised elaborate hand signals to communicate with two Americans in an opposite cell. How many of us consider it possible to devise a method of communication? (and without Google’s help)
In our safe and comfortable lives, we deny ourselves the possibility of learning, creating, of becoming so much more than we can. Yet, what is there to complain of, when we are not imprisoned; or are we?
As Easter approaches, let us remember the romantic characterisation of Jesus by Oscar Wilde in De Profundis:
“Christ’s place indeed is with the poets. His whole conception of Humanity sprang right out of the imagination and can only be realised by it. What God was to the pantheist, man was to Him. He was the first to conceive the divided races as a unity […] More than any one else in history he wakes in us that temper of wonder to which romance always appeals. There is still something to me almost incredible in the idea of a young Galilean peasant imagining that he could bear on his own shoulders the burden of the entire world; all that had already been done and suffered, and all that was yet to be done and suffered: […] : oppressed nationalities, factory children, thieves, people in prison, outcasts, those who are dumb under oppression and whose silence is heard only of God; and not merely imagining this but actually achieving it, so that at the present moment all who come in contact with his personality, even though they may neither bow to his altar nor kneel before his priest, in some way find that the ugliness of their sin is taken away and the beauty of their sorrow revealed to them.
I had said of Christ that he ranks with the poets. That is true. Shelley and Sophocles are of his company. But his entire life also is the most wonderful of poems. For ‘pity and terror’ there is nothing in the entire cycle of Greek tragedy to touch it. The absolute purity of the protagonist raises the entire scheme to a height of romantic art from which the sufferings of Thebes and Pelops’ line are by their very horror excluded, and shows how wrong Aristotle was when he said in his treatise on the drama that it would be impossible to bear the spectacle of one blameless in pain. […] The little supper with his companions, one of whom has already sold him for a price; the anguish in the quiet moon-lit garden; the false friend coming close to him so as to betray him with a kiss; the friend who still believed in him, and on whom as on a rock he had hoped to build a house of refuge for Man, denying him as the bird cried to the dawn; his own utter loneliness, his submission, his acceptance of everything; and along with it all such scenes as the high priest of orthodoxy rending his raiment in wrath, and the magistrate of civil justice calling for water in the vain hope of cleansing himself of that stain of innocent blood that makes him the scarlet figure of history; the coronation ceremony of sorrow, one of the most wonderful things in the whole of recorded time; the crucifixion of the Innocent One before the eyes of his mother and of the disciple whom he loved; the soldiers gambling and throwing dice for his clothes; the terrible death by which he gave the world its most eternal symbol; and his final burial in the tomb of the rich man, his body swathed in Egyptian linen with costly spices and perfumes as though he had been a king’s son. When one contemplates all this from the point of view of art alone one cannot but be grateful that the supreme office of the Church should be the playing of the tragedy without the shedding of blood: the mystical presentation, by means of dialogue and costume and gesture even, of the Passion of her Lord; and it is always a source of pleasure and awe to me to remember that the ultimate survival of the Greek chorus, lost elsewhere to art, is to be found in the servitor answering the priest at Mass.
Yet the whole life of Christ – so entirely may sorrow and beauty be made one in their meaning and manifestation – is really an idyll, though it ends with the veil of the temple being rent, and the darkness coming over the face of the earth, and the stone rolled to the door of the sepulchre. One always thinks of him as a young bridegroom with his companions, as indeed he somewhere describes himself; as a shepherd straying through a valley with his sheep in search of green meadow or cool stream; as a singer trying to build out of the music the walls of the City of God; or as a lover for whose love the whole world was too small. His miracles seem to me to be as exquisite as the coming of spring, and quite as natural. I see no difficulty at all in believing that such was the charm of his personality that his mere presence could bring peace to souls in anguish, and that those who touched his garments or his hands forgot their pain; […].
Renan in his VIE DE JESUS – that gracious fifth gospel, the gospel according to St. Thomas, one might call it – says somewhere that Christ’s great achievement was that he made himself as much loved after his death as he had been during his lifetime. And certainly, if his place is among the poets, he is the leader of all the lovers. He saw that love was the first secret of the world for which the wise men had been looking, and that it was only through love that one could approach either the heart of the leper or the feet of God.
And above all, Christ is the most supreme of individualists. Humility, like the artistic, acceptance of all experiences, is merely a mode of manifestation. It is man’s soul that Christ is always looking for. He calls it ‘God’s Kingdom,’ and finds it in every one. He compares it to little things, to a tiny seed, to a handful of leaven, to a pearl. That is because one realises one’s soul only by getting rid of all alien passions, all acquired culture, and all external possessions, be they good or evil.”
This collection of four essays written by the late Dr Sacks is one finished in a breath – so compelling a read that one finds her heart palpitating at the end of it, and hoping for more of his words.
It is also a book I wish to gift to my family and friends closest to me, for its wisdom is never too early or late to learn.
I shall but quote shortly:”I cannot pretend I am without fear. 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.”
His ruminations about life – of what it means to have lived – inspire one to be nervous about living. Are we living fully? Are we living consciously and honestly (to ourselves)?
Will we be filled with gratitude when our time is up?
As gleaned from Hallucinations:
His first drug experience was in 1953 when his childhood friend, Eric Korn went up to Oxford to visit him. They each took 25 micrograms of LSD and felt nothing, for the dosage was too small.
Starting a neurology residency in 1962, he became increasingly curious about the effects of hallucinogenic drugs.
He began with cannabis. He took two puffs of a friend’s joint and saw that his hand was getting larger and larger and moving away from him. He could see a hand stretched across the universe, light-years or parsecs in length. It looked like a human hand yet it seemed like the hand of God. His first pot experience was a mix of the neurological and the divine.
Then, he began to sample LSD and morning glory seeds as they were readily available. Once, a friend told him to try Artane for a “really far-out experience’, asserting that one will still be in partial control with a dose of twenty pills. So one Sunday morning, Oliver took twenty pills. He expected disorganisation and paranoia but besides a dry mouth, large pupils and finding it difficult to read, he felt nothing. Then, he heard a knocking on his door and found his friends Jim and Kathy dropping by for breakfast. He made them ham and eggs, walked to the living room and found it completely empty. He had not thought that Jim and Kathy’s “presences” were unreal. He was shocked and frightened, as this did not happen with LSD and other drugs. He said to himself “Take yourself in hand. Don’t let this happen again.” Then, he heard the sound of a chopper and thought his parents had flown from London to give him a surprise visit. As he rushed out to greet them, he found that it was empty. The silence and emptiness, the disappointment, reduced him to tears. He then went back into the house and a spider on the kitchen wall caught his attention. It began to speak to him and they had a conversation on analytic philosophy.
As he was working as a resident at UCLA’s neurology department, he avoided drugs during the week and often experimented with them during the weekends.
One Saturday in 1964, he developed a concoction of amphetamine, LSD and cannabis. After about twenty minutes, he saw the colour of indigo. He was overwhelmed as he thought it a colour of heaven, of which Giotto had spent a lifetime trying to get but never achieved. He thought it was the colour of the Palaeozoic sea, the colour the ocean used to be. Suddenly, the colour disappeared and he was left with an overwhelming sense of loss and sadness.
One day, he took a hefty dose of Heavenly Blue morning glory seeds with vanilla ice cream. After about twenty minutes, he found himself in a realm of paradisiacal stillness and beauty. At this time, he saw an a taxi backing up the steep trail to his house. An elderly woman got out of the taxi and he ran towards her shouting “I know who you are – you are a replica of Augusta Bonnard… You look like her but you are not her. I am not deceived for a moment.” Augusta then got back into the taxi and took off. The next time Augusta met Oliver, she asserted that his failure to recognise her was psychotic. Also, his habit of taking mind-altering drugs every weekend, alone and in high doses, testified to some intense inner needs or conflicts.
In the summer of 1965, he had three months of break. In this idle time, Oliver descended deeper into drug taking, no longer confining it to weekends. He tried intravenous injection of several vials of morphine. Then, he hallucinated hundreds, thousands of men – two armies, two nations – preparing to battle. He did not realise he was merely staring at a spot on the sleeve of his dressing gown and laying in bed. He felt that the drug effect was fading fast, yet when he woke, it was ten, the next day. He had been gazing, motionless, for more than twelve hours. This shocked and sobered him, and it became his first and last opium experience.
In the December of 1965, he was having a difficult time. He was depressed and insomniac, and was taking ever-increasing amounts of chloral hydrate to get to sleep. It was up to fifteen times the usual dose every night. One Tuesday, a little before Christmas, he ran out supply. He went to bed without the usual knockout dose and had poor sleep. The next day, after a brain-cutting session in the hospital, he went across the road to get lunch, as usual. Suddenly, the coffee turned green then purple. He looked up and saw a customer with a huge proboscidean head. Realising that he was hallucinating, he quickly made his way home (suffering frightening hallucinations along the way). Thinking that he had lost his mind, he phoned his friend, Carol and told her “I want to say goodbye. I’ve gone mad, psychotic, insane.” Luckily, Carol knew that he was just suffering from DT – delirium tremens as he had just stopped taking chloral hydrate (in huge doses). For the next ninety-six hours, he continued hallucinating and when it finally stopped, he fell into exhausted stupor.
In February 1967, he had amphetamine and started reading Edward Liveing’s book on migraine. In ten hours, he read steadily through the five hundred pages. At times, he was unsure if he was reading or writing the book. He was moved by Liveing’s humanity and social sensitivity, the mix of science and humanism, and heard a very loud internal voice telling him to be the Living of his time. The next day, he began to write his own book. The joy he got from writing was real – infinitely more substantial than the vapid mania of amphetamines- and he never took amphetamines again.
“I have a migraine.” – A common excuse to skip school or work, but do we really know what we’re saying?
In “A Treatise on Headache, 1853”, J.C. Peters described:
The character of the pains varied very much; most frequently they were of a hammering, throbbing or pushing nature…pressing and dull…boring with sense of bursting..pricking…rending…stretching…piercing…and radiating…In a few cases it felt as if a wedge was pressed into the head, or like an ulcer, or as if the brain was torn or pressed outwards.
For many, a visual migraine aura precedes the pain. The aura, with its zigzag shape, resembles the wavelike electrical disturbance passing through the visual parts of the brain. While most migraine auras remain elementary: phosphenes, fortifications and geometrical figures; others are complex. One wrote of always “seeing” a worker emerging from a manhole in the street, wearing a white hard hat with an American flag painted on it. Also, people may hallucinate smells before the onset of migraine. One wrote of always smelling beef roasting, about thirty minutes before the migraine began.
A migraine may affect one’s perception of colour or depth or movement, making the whole visual world unintelligible for a few minutes. Then one may suffer violent headaches, vomiting, painful sensitivity to light and noise, abdominal disturbances or other symptoms.
For more information, read Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks.
In 1943, the University of Vienna was merely a shadow of itself – of the nearly two hundred senior members of the medical faculty, fewer than fifty remained. Some had been forced to flee the country, some were in exile, imprisoned in concentration camps or dead of suicide.
In the period of fanatic Nazism, of eradicating persons who are “life unworthy of life”, Hans Asperger stood firm and propounded his belief that autistic children are not “defects”.
In his thesis, “Autistic Psychopathy in Childhood, 1944”, he wrote:
“The example of autism shows particularly well how even abnormal personalities can be capable of development and adjustment. Possibilities of social integration which one would never have dreamt of may arise in the course of development. This knowledge determines our attitude towards complicated individuals of this and other types. It also gives us the right and the duty to speak out for these children with the whole force of our personality.”
On October 3, 1938, he gave the first public talk on autism in history, in a lecture hall filled with swastikas. He remarked:
“Today, let me not discuss the problem from the point of view of the people’s health, for then we would have to discuss the laws for the prevention of diseased genetic material; instead we will address it from the point of view of the abnormal children. How much can we do for these people? That shall be our question…Not everything that steps out of the line, and is thus ‘abnormal’, must necessarily be ‘inferior’.”
The gravity of his words hits one, when one takes into account the social and political context. His courage to stand alone in the face of colleagues who have lost their rationality and humanity, shows extraordinary strength of character. His fearlessness in conviction and compassion, should be written in history.
To find out more, read NeuroTribes.