Feeling awake to life rather than asleep

The golfer Oliver Wilson recently won on the DP World Tour for the first time in eight years. Indeed, he admitted they were pretty ‘dark times’ along the way and he struggled with some uncertainty about his sport. He commented after his win, ‘I’m not setting any new goals. My expectations aren’t changing. I’m just going to keep on doing what I’m doing. Nobody knows what’s around the corner, good or bad, and I know that more than anyone, so I’ve just got to keep working, keep moving forward, keep showing up and see what happens’. As I read Wilson’s words it made me reflect not simply on the work he is putting in, but his deep commitment to the journey involved. From what I can understand, he seems to have dealt with difficult times by embracing what the sport offers him in small, daily, ways. Of course, he wants outcomes but what nourishes his love of the game seems to happen along the way, not at the end.

Wilson’s comments got me to thinking about how in sport, and life generally, we need to be able the savour the everyday in anything we do. In particular the thought that I was thinking was Oliver Sacks’ book ‘Awakenings’. Sacks was a famous British neurologist who worked in the USA for most of his career. ‘Awakenings’ charts his work at Mount Carmel Hospital, New York, in the late 1960s with patients who had survived the great sleeping sickness epidemic, a form of encephalitis, after WW1. However, these patients were left unable to move in any way on their own, often looking ‘frozen’ or like ‘statues’ to those around them. Sacks believed though that the person was still inside and administered a drug to them (called L-Dopa), that ‘awakened’ these patients from their statue like state to partial, and sometimes, full presence in the world. Alongside the book, the remarkable story is chronicled in a 1990 film with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. Sadly, some of these patients had lost 30 or 40 years of their lives to their condition, often left immobilised from childhood or early adult life. They had missed much in terms of seeing their children grow, travelling the world and fulfilling their ambitions.

The reason I connect Wilson with the story of ‘Awakenings’ is based on this quote from Sacks: ‘For these patients, while seemingly so extraordinary, so ‘special’, have in them something of the universal, and can call to everyone, awaken everyone, as they called to and awakened me’. Sacks felt that the patients were ‘teachers’ as they continually highlighted the moments they missed across those 30+ years, moments the rest of us take for granted sometimes – a coffee with friends, a walk on a sunny day, the laughter of children, an ice cream by the beach – or indeed perhaps playing a sport we love being a part of. Through his writing Sacks, and his patients, implore us to ‘awaken’ ourselves to the small moments life offers us along the way. Often, however, we can remain ‘asleep’ to such living by getting dragged into falsely believing that outcomes, whether they are winning, a bank balance, or the car we drive, is what sustains us. The more I work with athletes and people generally, the more I feel we must nourish ourselves in another way. Perhaps its best to finish with one of Sack’s most famous patients, ‘Leonard L’ who stated on receiving L-Dopa, allowing him temporarily at least to engage simple everyday life, ‘I have been hungry and yearning all my life and now I am full. Appeased. Satisfied. I want nothing more.’ 

Worth a read:

Oliver Wilson’s quote is from the February edition of ‘Golf Monthly’