Final days sharply focus what matters most

By Gerald V. Paul

World-renowned neurologist and bestselling author Oliver Sacks has learned he has terminal cancer.

“I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential,” he said. “I must focus on myself, my work, my friends. This is not indifference but detachment.

“I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, growing inequality but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future,” a pensive Sacks said. Sacks wrote in the New York Times about his approach to his final months.

Dear Eyesers, Dr. William Bridges who runs a consultancy on handling change, says there are ways of facilitating transitions which begin with recognizing that letting go is at best an ambiguous experience, be it to losses of relationships, changes in home life, personal changes, work and financial changes or inner changes.

Psychologist Erik Erikson has explained how the process of identity formation works during youth, when a person tries on a series of roles and experiments with different kinds of relationships – friendship, closet moralist or dreamer. Out of this potpourri of identities some coherent sense of self must be formed. This is the developmental business of youth, says Erikson, and what is called the task of this phase of life.

Bridges noted “every phase of life has such a task, and failing to complete it satisfactorily means that the person makes the transition into the next phase with unfinished business. Yes, another way to look at it is taking baggage into another relationship. And in fact most of us did only a passable job or resolving identity issues back then.

“Consequently, whenever we enter into a new a new transition, some of those old identity issues are going to reemerge. So the secret is to accept our experience as natural and just live, love and laugh!

Charles Dickens was hardly more than 10 when he began to work in a London blacking factory and had to live by his wits in a nearby slum. No unfinished business there – except that insecurities created by the premature independence stayed with Dickens all his life. And the rest as we know, Eyesers, is history. Or literature.

Bridges offers 10 salient points on love and work, a transition checklist:

Take your time; arrange temporary structures; don’t act for the sake of action; recognize why you are uncomfortable; take care of yourself in little ways; explore the other side of the change; find someone to talk to; find out what is waiting in the wings of your life; use this transition as the impetus to a new kind of learning; recognize that transition has a characteristic shape.

British historian and philosopher Arnold Toynbee pointed out years ago in the Study of History that societies gain access to new energies and directions only after a “time of troubles” initiates a process of disintegration wherein the old order comes apart. He showed how often a new orientation is made clear only after what he calls a “withdrawal and return” on the part of individuals or creative minorities within the society.

Indeed. Like Winter into Spring, dearly beloved Eyesers, press on and on, knowing this too shall pass, as we live, love and laugh, beautifully, like a caterpillar into a butterfly, doing the transition thing.

Gerald V. Paul
Gerald V. Paul