Oliver Sacks on the Meaning of Life
“Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.” I wish to make some comments on this passage from my late friend Oliver Sacks, which I think deserves expansion. He writes these words after listing other good things in his life: love, travel, writing, and reading. But he singles out what follows “above all” for special commendation, even though it might appear banal and entirely generic. Being a sentient being is listed first, as if the most important: merely to be a sentient being is a “privilege”—so much better than not being one. This we share with other animals, which also have the privilege of sentience—the capacity to be conscious of the world and themselves. He must mean the sensuous richness and beauty of the perceived world. We are lucky enough to have this capacity—to be sentient at all. He then adds “a thinking animal”, which needs some unpacking. This is not equivalent to “sentient being” but adds two other qualities (arguably three): thinking and animality. It is a privilege to be a thinker, capable of all that thinking confers, over and above sentience; again many existent things lack this quality. We should feel gratitude for having it. But we are also animals like other animals, thinking animals or otherwise. It is a privilege to be an animal—just like other animals in our animal nature: the vigor, the struggle, the strength, the resilience, the sheer flesh-and-bloodness. An alien species might regard us as a splendid (if eccentric) beast, well worth researching and gazing at. It’s good to be an animal. But it is even better to be a thinking animal: to have these two qualities juxtaposed in us. To be both an animal and a thinker—what a marvelous conjunction of attributes! Isn’t so much of human nature the result of negotiating these colliding qualities? We have to live as both things, as a combination of opposites—or at least uneasy partners. That fascinating duality is what makes us the specific type of conscious living being that we are. Oliver then casually adds “on this beautiful planet”: suddenly we take a step back to contemplate our place in the cosmos. And what a place it is: a jewel, a paradise, and a haven, compared to the grim expanses of space. Our natural home is a thing of interest and beauty. Just think of the other planets we might have lived on—ugly, dull, inhospitable, hostile, and murderous. We are privileged to live on the most desirable piece of real estate in the known universe! And we have the sentience to appreciate it, to love it, to be able to contemplate it. He ends by saying, “that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure”. That is, these elementary facts about human life in themselves are causes for gratitude, whatever the details of your individual life may be. You are already a privileged being just by having these attributes—already blessed, already immeasurably fortunate. And then there is that final resounding tri-syllable that I have intentionally left out until now—adventure. It is an adventure to be a being with the attributes listed: “an unusual, exciting, and daring experience”, as the OED defines the word. How can it not be an adventure if you are a being with sentience, a thinking animal, living out your days on planet Earth? A life of adventure is guaranteed, part of the package. Just by being what we are, in the place we are, life is an adventure and a privilege—given to precious few (nearly everything in the universe that we know of exists without such privilege and adventure). Other animals share some of this largesse (and should be respected for it), but we alone have our special kind of complicated being, which comes to us without lifting a finger—as thinking, feeling, animal beings, existing on an isolated oasis of bounty and beauty. We can all feel grateful for that. We had it pretty good.