Let’s begin.


You’ve got to begin somewhere. Whether you’re bright-eyed and enthusiastic, or kicking and screaming, when the time has come and you can’t wait/put it off any longer, you have to begin.

Beginnings come in all forms – dramatic, anticlimactic, conscious, unconscious. Does it matter whether you’ve made the choice or not? No. Jump out of the airplane or be pushed: the destination is the same. (Overall satisfaction with experience may vary.)

Beginnings are scary because they have the power to transform the beginner.  Whether you’ve joyfully embraced a new opportunity, or have been thrust unwillingly into some fresh hell, the act of beginning reshapes the landscape of one’s life.  There are some endeavors that, once begun, will change you forever.

For reluctant starters like me, this prospect is daunting enough that I’ll go to extraordinary lengths to put off getting started as long as I can.  When I’ve exhausted my methods of procrastination, and can no longer avoid the inevitable, I turn to other people’s stories for inspiration, and find the courage to begin.

One of those stories is told in the film “Awakenings,”adapted from the book by the same name by Dr. Oliver Sacks.  In 1969, Dr. Sacks was working in a psychiatric hospital in the Bronx with patients who had been catatonic for decades. The encephalitis lethargica epidemic of 1915 – 1926 had left them in a statue-like state, unable to speak or move.  In clinical trials, Sacks discovered that experimental doses of a new drug, of a new L-DOPA, could “awaken” these patients, with astonishing results: people who had been in a seemingly vegetative state for years could suddenly dance, catch a ball, feed themselves, and carry on a normal conversation. 

At first, the treatments were successful. “For a certain time, in almost every patient who is given L-DOPA,” Sacks said, there was “a beautiful, unclouded return to health.” Hospital staff watched in disbelief as the frozen figures in their care come to life before their eyes. “Very suddenly, sometimes one of these patients would be released from this state and would speak and move, then you could see what a vivid, alive, real person was there, imprisoned in a sort of way by some strange physiological change… The suddenness was incredible and nothing which I had read about gave me any hint of this.”

Some beginnings are like that: a surprise, immediate success, and lots of fanfare. In this case, however, the success was short-lived. “Sooner or later,” Sacks wrote, “in one way or another, almost every patient is plunged into problems and troubles.” One by one, they returned to their catatonic states.

After such a promising start, it was a demoralizing failure. But beginnings have a stubborn habit of rooting themselves in the ashes of endings. Which brings us to the second turning point in the film.

The awakening of the encephalitis patients turned out to be a transformative experience for Dr. Sacks and the hospital stuff. Even when confronted with “the reality of miracles” as the limitations and side effects of the treatment begin to reveal themselves, the patients’ caregivers were forever changed. Now that they’d seen the real people trapped inside those seemingly empty shells, they could not un-see them. They could not pretend there was no one home inside their patients’ heads and that nothing could be done for them. What began as an experiment became a rescue effort. There was no choice but to begin again.

In the film’s final scene,  Sacks explains the transformation:

“What we do know is that as the chemical window closed, another awakening took place. That the human spirit is more powerful than any drug and that is what needs to be nourished. With work, play, friendship, family. These are the things that matter. This is what we’ve forgotten. The simplest things.”

In the beginning, Sacks said, “there was great joy and a sort of lyrical delight in the world which had been given back. I remember one patient stroking leaves and looking at the night lights of New York on the horizon. And everything was a source of delight and gratitude.” Yet there was also pain and confusion as both patients and caregivers were confronted with new realities.  Together they grieved the loss of so many years of life, and struggled to adapt a world that was very different than the one they’d known.

Later, that grief was compounded by a fresh set of losses as patients relapsed, reacted violently to medication, or returned to catatonia. Still, despite setbacks, most patients were able to achieve an equilibrium that allowed them to enjoy richer lives than was previously thought possible.

For a reluctant starter, the “Awakenings” story might seem like a cautionary tale rather than a source of inspiration.   A brilliant success, followed by a crushing failure?  No thanks. When I’m stalled with my own projects, spinning my wheels, and sputtering out,  I want the kind of happy, heroic ending that says, “You too can do great things!  Hang on; everything will turn out fine!”

The message of “Awakenings” is more subtle, and more solidly grounded in real life. The film ends with a clip that brings the viewer back to the  beginning of the story, before the L-DOPA trials.  In it, Dr. Sacks is  working with the patient who will eventually provide the experiment’s first breakthrough.  But neither of them know it at the time.  “Let’s begin,” Sacks says.

There’s a beautiful innocence in that scene, because no one knows how the experiment will turn out.  For that moment, it is enough just to begin.

That’s the lesson I draw from this story: all beginnings have to start somewhere.  Eventually we’ll know how the story ends, but not unless we take a leap of faith and begin…again, and again. Confident or clueless, prepared or petrified…it doesn’t matter.  Ready or not, it starts here now.




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