This weekend I read Oliver Sacks’ tiny mini-tome, Gratitude. I really mean tiny. It’s a book you can finish in half an hour.
It consists of four short essays, all written in the two years before his death. All four reflect on aging and dying as Sacks went from a robust 79-year-old who swam a mile a day to an invalid dying of liver cancer. He really says nothing new or profound. For that matter he doesn’t say much overtly about gratitude. The attraction is, of course, that Oliver Sacks is saying the rather familiar things about death.
He lived in front of the world for all those decades, a man of the mind who also studied minds and wrote about them in the liveliest way. So you know that when he quotes a philosopher, said philosopher was likely to have been a good friend. And you know that when his cousin turns him on to a good idea, it’s going to be his cousin the Nobel Prize winner.
In this case his cousin the Nobel Prize winning economist, Robert John Aumann, is also an observant Orthodox Jew, who inspired the last essay in the book, “Sabbath.”
I’ve always admired such strict observances as not even being willing to drive a car or flip a light switch or turn on a stove burner from some arcane-but-precise moment on Friday to some arcane-but-precise moment on Saturday. At the same time, it also seems silly. Srsly you can’t turn on a 21st-century LED light on the Sabbath because of a millennia-old proscription against lighting fires on that day? Well, yeah, it makes a certain bureaucratic sense. But …
Yet I sometimes find myself yearning for such ritual, such steadfast belief in something unknowable. I’m not patient enough to practice rituals that don’t make sense to me (whether the rituals of a mainstream religion or some neopagan thing like honoring the four corners), but it seems like such an honorable and mindful ideal.
Sacks wrote of the Sabbath differently. Watching his cousin and his family observe the Sabbath, he didn’t think of their observances as being hopelessly strict or meaningless, even though he’d long since ceased being a believer. He thought of their ultra-observent Sabbath as “a day out of time.” A day to step aside from the go-go world.
What a great way to view it.
That could mean a lot of different things to different people, but most of them, I’m guessing, are filled with adventures in serenity.