A Backwards Pep Talk

Photo by Michael Fuller.

Photo by Michael Fuller.

Oliver Sacks, renowned neurologist and author, died last week in his Manhattan home. He was 82. His many works include Awakenings, which inspired the 1990 film of the same name starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro. As I reflected on Dr. Sacks’ life and reread some of his work, I became amazed at the failures he experienced and witnessed. His stories offer us something especially meaningful at the beginning of a school year—something more than just a reminder that humans learn through mistakes. With a new semester come new expectations of success, and I think, too rarely, expectations of failure.

The English-born Dr. Sacks began his American career researching at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx. His work there became marked by failed experiments and lab missteps. Sacks later recounted to the Washington Post that one supervisor at Beth Abraham called him a “menace in the lab,” and told him he would “do less harm” to patients. He transitioned into the clinic shortly thereafter.

His first cases in the clinic were victims of the 1920’s encephalitis lethargica (“sleepy sickness”) epidemic, and became the subjects of Dr. Sacks’ first book. In Awakenings, Sacks recounts his treatment of the survivors with a new drug called L-dopa, which literally awoke some from vegetative, silent existence into lives of movement and sociability. Those moments of rebirth emotionally shook the young doctor, and he retells them in vivid, stirring prose. L-dopa brought its own set of challenges: sometimes Sacks spent nights calibrating and re-calibrating doses, watching his patients’ conditions ebb and flow. For every new life he saw begin, the drug seemed to shut another down.

Blunders in the lab, struggles in the clinic, drugs that didn’t work, and families that couldn’t stand the stresses of illness. Sacks didn’t witness or live through these things without pain, but to him they were the substance of learning. They taught him about medicine and they taught him about the human spirit.

The cultural mandate implies a command to discover. This is how humans care for the earth and create value. We make progress by doing things without precedent, and that means we have to take risks. Some given proportion of activity that involves risk, by definition, fail. Obvious conclusions, but easily forgotten in the reading of Genesis 1:28. We are commanded to fail—not just to learn about sin and dependence, but in order to make progress on the very first task God gave mankind.

Brian Brenberg, professor of economics at The King’s College in New York, writes: “The sooner you get used to dealing with things going wrong, the sooner you can get on with the business of finding ways to make things go right.” Oliver Sacks was a passionate humanist and embraced successes and failures as part of a universal march towards good evolution. His affection for human endeavors oversteps itself in his writing, but it helps me understand this theology of failure. I can enter this semester confident that my undertakings will collapse, change, or even explode. And when they do, I will know that they were designated and necessary portions of my role on this earth. I can learn to be content with defeat.

That’s a backhanded and frightening encouragement, but one that should make us eager to get out of bed in the morning. Hold less tightly to success and you'll hunger more for discovery.