It sounds like the start of a joke. "Oliver Sacks, Wayne Dyer and Wes Craven walk into a bar..." In fact, those three very different men went not into a bar together, but into death, with the end of their lives clustered in the last weekend of August.
The renowned neurologist, the self-help guru and the cinematic scare-meister might seem to have little in common, but they actually shared a few things beyond achieving a certain level of fame and dying within hours of each other.
Cancer, for one. For Sacks, who was 82, it was melanoma that spread from his eye to his liver. Dyer, 75 years old, had been diagnosed with leukemia. And Craven, at 76, suffered from brain cancer.
While these men created different legacies, each left us something to think about when it comes to one of the most basic human feelings: Fear. What are we to make of that elemental emotion? How can we keep the fear in our own lives in check? Is there a common thread in how this trio faced cancer, fear and mortality?
Wes Craven is, of course, the one most closely associated with fear. A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream are the stuff of... well, nightmares and screams. Serial killers and slashers might have been his stock-in-trade, but Craven knew -- Freddie Krueger or not -- fear lives deep in us all. "Horror films don't create fear. They release it," Craven said. He told an author, "You see, it's not just that people want to be scared; people are scared." What scared Wes Craven? "Certainly the deepest horror, as far as I'm concerned, is what happens to your body at your own hands and others." Craven shared his thoughts about facing fear and adversity, saying, "A lot of life is dealing with your curse, dealing with the cards you were given that aren't so nice. Does it make you into a monster, or can you temper it in some way?"
If Craven gave us blood and guts, Wayne Dyer was known for giving us advice and motivation in the gentlest way. "Notice each day whether you are choosing to live in fear or love." "Fear," he said, "can keep you disconnected from the loving presence inside you." Dyer sold tens of millions of books, and tackled many topics, but fear was a frequent theme. He wrote, "One of the most common questions people ask me is some variation on: How can I overcome fear and take a chance?" His answer was to try to rid one's self the idea of failure, and embrace the fear. "We all fear change and the risks it carries," Dyer said. "But I have to say that everything significant I've ever experienced has involved change."
Oliver Sacks also sold a lot of books, and remained an avid writer to the end, penning essays on everything from medicine to music to the meaning of life. He was a man of science, whose knowledge only deepened his fascination with the mysteries of the human mind. Earlier this year, when he learned his cancer was terminal and death was close, Sacks wrote an essay entitled "My Own Life" in The New York Times. He mentioned fear, but it was fleeting. "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. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. 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."
Dealing with the cards you were given. Having the courage to change. Facing your own mortality with gratitude and grace. Maybe Craven, Dyer and Sacks never walked into a bar together, but what a conversation it would have been.
In facing fear, and death, Sacks gave us all a gift, declaring, "It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can."
Words to live by.