Oliver Sacks, the late physician-writer of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, held warm memories of his misunderstood patients. Sacks was a neurologist, a man compelled to study and to treat diseases of the mind. He was trained in both the United Kingdom and the United States, and spent his career working with a diverse host of fascinating individuals: those with a preternatural memory; those who could not comprehend words, but read perfectly through tone and body language; those with peculiar, life-altering amnesias; and, as many will know,The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. But amidst all these patient stories, the perceptive reader will notice something odd: Sacks reserves his warmest reflections for one particular group of patients.
Writing in a different era, Sacks uses rather outdated terms to describe these individuals. (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a seminal work of his, was published in 1985.) But today, we might recognize them as persons with developmental differences or intellectual disabilities. In one of his essays, the Poet Laureate of Medicine describes Rebecca, a young woman with congenital mental deficiencies and an exceptional emotional intelligence. He later recalls two twins, ostracized and misjudged by their onlookers, who exude a potent, almost personal mastery of numbers and calculations. All these patients (and a good many more) do a distinct service for Sacks. They not only provide a fascinating view into the minds of singular individuals; they provide a glimpse of what it means to be human. “As I continued to see her, she seemed to deepen,” Sacks wrote of Rebecca, who was deficient in parts, yet beautifully complete. “Or perhaps she revealed, or I came to respect, her depths more and more.”
I am in good confidence that, if ever given the chance, the great physician-writer would have admired the depths of Charlie Foley-Hughes just as well.
Where Dr. Sacks was unlucky, I was fortunate. As a young man captivated by our most human stories, I have lacked no captivation while writing about the eclectic crew at Ada’s Café. Ada’s, as many will remember, is an innovative community presence, employing and empowering individuals with a diverse range of disabilities. For myself, this opportunity has acted as a sort of angled anthropological mirror: reflecting my questions of joy, struggle and disability towards the café employees, but also reflecting strength, humility and kindness from those employees to the world outside. “I must have meaning,” Rebecca once said to Dr. Sacks – and I find myself always in wonder, grasping at meaning afresh, with each succeeding person at Ada’s.
Charlie, our focus of the present piece, is no exception. I spoke with the young man for no more than forty minutes on a recent Saturday afternoon, but that was quite enough to shift my perspectives and challenge my paradigms. Charlie, of course, had neither shifty nor challenging intentions. The 29-year-old Californian is too humble, too accommodating for that. Rather, I found the young man challenging, much in the way that a Picasso is challenging: so much of him was instantly recognizable, yet so confounded by my preconceived notions. Normally, one must see through a person’s words to understand the truth of that individual. But in Charlie’s case, it was as if his words had seen through me.
“I love to sing,” Charlie says, when I ask him of his favorite hobbies. With just a passing glance, one is not surprised. Charlie is not a large man, but his joy is gargantuan. His smiles are often paired with a chuckle, and bordered by handsome lines on both sides. His eyes are warm and welcoming – but they are also sharp, and piercing. There is something astute to his very countenance.
And indeed, there is much more to Charlie than a love of music. In fact, the young man is hard-pressed to identify anything which he does not love. “I like to do a lot of different things,” he says, as if boredom or disdain were preposterous concepts, “I love to make coffees, I love to make sandwiches… I like to read the newspaper every morning… I love going to Giants games.” He makes all these amorous declarations with that characteristic smile: sincere, genuine, framed by diffident yet resolute eyes. “I’m very energetic, I’m very personable,” he proclaims of himself, “I’m very… happy.”
Happiness is, as we will see, one of Charlie’s salient features. Wherever the California son has been – born in Los Angeles, raised in Palo Alto, educated at Gunn High School – joy has abounded. In high school, he expressed that joy through song, as a member of the Gunn choir. Today, the sight of an outfield leap by the Giants’ Andrew McCutchen would suffice. But no matter the time, Charlie has felt an intimate, perhaps inextricable relationship with joy and contentment. Humans across geography and generations have striven endlessly, for what he holds innately. They have meditated, medicated, pondered, and generally exacerbated their discontent, in the hopes of becoming truly and consistently happy. But for Charlie? “I just… am.”
The questions are intuitive: “Why? How?” But their answers are inarticulable. When asked if he is happy, if he feels content with his life, Charlie does not hesitate to answer in the affirmative. When asked to explain his happiness, however – when he is forced to describe why, and how, something makes him happy – he is all hesitation. His short, succinct answers morph into drawn-out vocalizations, an almost-meditative “Umm…”
This peculiar behavior is sourced in part – though by no means entirely – by Charlie’s neurological history. Nearly three decades ago, Charlie was born very prematurely, incurring a number of developmental challenges in his early life. These were compounded by an intracranial bleed, which put pressure on his burgeoning brain. “So I’m very smart,” the young man explains with confidence, “but it takes me a little longer to process things.”
Indeed, the Palo Alto resident has approached all his life’s passions with aptitude and rigor. He was an involved, passionate student at Gunn High School; he is a dedicated purveyor of the San Francisco Chronicle; and he is an invaluable presence, a veritable Swiss army knife, at Ada’s Café. But nonetheless, his mind works differently. If one asks Charlie a question, that question should be succinct. If one is to engage Charlie in conversation, that conversation should feel relevant and familiar. Most of all, one must be patient with Charlie. There is wisdom and depth to this unique soul; and to learn from that wisdom, to explore that depth, one must first pull back the veils of confusion and prejudice.
But first, we return to Picasso. In 1937, the virtuosic painter finished “Portrait of Dora Maar” – a portrait of a woman, featuring the peculiarities and deformations which characterized his later work. The woman is majestic, with a recognized allure. But there is something odd about her beauty, if one might call it that. One eye is red, the other is green, and neither one faces in the same direction. Her fingers are elongated, her geometry distorted.
Yet at the same time, these exact distortions and deformities give the painting a sort of “truer than life” reality. The onlooker is drawn in by familiarity, and ultimately sees his or her own self in new possibilities. “The purpose of art,” Picasso once opined, “is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”
Charlie is doing something similar, but with his very presence. Ask the Palo Altan what excites him about Ada’s Café, and he is forthcoming: “It’s a way to be in community.” Ask him what his favorite duties are at the café, and the answer is simple: “I love to make the food.” Inquire of his sociality, and his responses are intuitive: “I’m someone who loves to meet new people.”
But ask him why he is happy, or where his happiness comes from, and you will find no easy answer. He will enter once more into those drawn-out vocalizations, confused as if you had asked him where his fingers come from. His focus will shift from the concrete world around him, toward the world of detached abstractions. But the shift will not be a desirable one. Happiness is not, to Charlie, an abstract idea to be analyzed and manipulated. His joy cannot be reduced to practices and thought-patterns. For most of us, joy is ephemeral, elusive, extrinsic. But for Charlie, joy is as palpable and intrinsic as any of his appendages. For him, contentment is not elusive: “It’s just… there.”
“The concrete is readily imbued with feeling and meaning,” writes Dr. Sacks, while introducing a series of essays on his patients with intellectual disabilities, “more readily perhaps than any abstract conception.” Throughout these works, there is an odd paradox in the physician-writer’s tone: a vague mix of clinical detachment, and undeniable empathy. He feels for these patients, perhaps more than any others. And ultimately, he sees the inherent, powerfully-human world in which many of them live. They live in a world where love, joy, and suffering are not ideated themes, but are the very colors which paint a life.
This world, as Sacks notes, “readily moves into the aesthetic, the dramatic, the comic, the symbolic, the whole wide deep world of art and spirit.” A man may be “wholly unable to understand the world as concepts,” he continues, “and yet fully able, and indeed gifted, in understanding the world as concreteness.” If Charlie’s developmental challenges have made it a bit more difficult to process information – that cold, bland practice through which most of us interpret the world – those same challenges may have gifted him with the ability to experience reality.
And this is no small gift. As self-help books and modern gurus alike have demonstrated, the modern Western world thirsts for reality. We use words like mindfulness, and presence, as if they were medications for a human condition which has fallen ill. We eat, sleep, exercise, and socialize in manners which will, ostensibly, foster a sense of contentment. Then the next relationship trouble, the next personal insecurity, the next political trauma – and the process begins again. Modern humans are ceaselessly running a race without a distance, and on a track without a finish line.
But if there is any race here, Charlie has already won. When one asks Charlie to name his favorite memory, his favorite activity, his closest friend, he cannot. But why? He has, after all, many beautiful memories, many treasured activities, many dear friends. The answer is simple: because Charlie’s world is too real, too concrete. He will not give you a numerical list of his favorite activities, because his activities cannot be abstracted into numbers on an existential leaderboard. He struggles to pick out individual memories, because his life is a totality, not a set of compartments.
Of course, analysis and abstraction are part of the human condition as well. They contribute to the wonderous human mind, and are not to be derided as superfluous. But still, I believe that Charlie is an important example of what it means to be human. Dr. Sacks recognized Rebecca’s depth as he came to know her, and Charlie’s wisdom is similar, extending far beyond the surface. His countenance is sincere and humble, warm and ebullient, because of the way he sees the world. Life is not, to him, a mere race to be won. Life, to Charlie, merely is. The sky is beautiful, work is meaningful, the Giants are (at times) wonderful – what more is there to understand? Why deconstruct a moment, a concrete reality, in order to glance the miscellaneous parts of which it is composed?
The young man himself does not read things this way. But then again, perhaps he is too busy enjoying life for what it is. Perhaps he is too engaged with the customers at Ada’s, to wonder why he loves meeting new people. Perhaps he is too invigorated by the scent of fresh coffee, to ponder why he loves working in the kitchen. He simply loves people, and loves his work.
Rebecca, we might remember, yearned for meaning with Dr. Sacks. But for Charlie, meaning is a mere reality; it is not a question. The rest of us may chase our questions around, searching for value and contentment on an existential track. But Charlie will be waiting at the finish line, smiling with sincerity.
“I’m very personable, helpful,” he says once more, with a humility and gentleness and deep-seated joy – “and happy.”