Updated: Jul 14, 2019
Fierce atheist and scathing polemicist, Christopher Hitchens, died on this day six years ago (December 15, 2011) of complications from esophageal cancer. Raised religious, he shed the reins of his upbringing and sought to understand the effects of widespread and exploitative religion on the masses. Of course Hitchens had many enemies, given his zealous disdain and combative repudiation of religion. Over the years I have listened to countless debates, interviews and speeches of Hitchens. I've read several of his books, including his final one entitled, Mortality, in which Hitchens shares his battle with cancer and confronting the reality of his own death.
Christopher Hitchens has had an impact on my life and journey in various ways. On this day, which commemorates his death six years ago, I want to share 3 of them.
1. Christopher Hitchens challenged me to become more intelligent.
The breadth of knowledge Hitchens had, his skill at complex reasoning, and his extraordinary clarity of thought was without rival. He could deduce new conclusions based on solid, fundamental, true understanding. Hitchens could connect the dots across multiple disciplines where most people are only specialized in their one area of expertise. He had excellent critical thinking skills, and could step back and see the big picture from new angles. He was a tremendous knowledge synthesizer but applied it with the precision of a surgeon. What developed, evolved, deepened and matured in Hitchens' mind was nothing short of brilliant. He challenged me to rethink my own commitment to expanding the breadth of my own knowledge, and strengthening my critical thinking skills. Hitchens was important because he was able to write and speak so knowledgeably about a wide range of subjects from literature to poetry to current events and history to religion, philosophy, and ethics. Hitchens was a voracious reader, and a prolific writer.
2. Christopher Hitchens challenged me to become more articulate.
Hitchens’ gift for rhetoric and erudition was unmatched. His command over the English language was extraordinary. Whether it was organized and planned remarks, or speaking extemporaneously in debates and interviews, Hitchens was an extraordinary communicator. He was a brilliant writer. We all have access to the same 172,000 words in the English language. There’s a skill and talent in the words selected and how they are strung together in sentences, paragraphs and chapters. Hitchens set himself apart among his contemporaries as an orator and author.
3. Christopher Hitchens taught me to operate within the power of my convictions.
Hitchens wasn’t afraid to offend people, and perhaps this was his calling card – pissing people off. But to be fair, he did it with his intellect and debating skills. He is a polarizing figure. People don’t just ‘not like’ Christopher Hitchens; his detractors hate and vilify him. It’s understandable, there are no sacred cows to Hitchens and he put every world religion on notice. One of his most known books is, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
I think Jesus would have been fond of the fiery Hitchens, and would have shared many of his condemnations of religion. But I don’t think that matters; Hitchens doesn’t believe there’s ample evidence that there was a Jesus. Yes, Hitchens had a superior intellect and exceptional communication skills, but it’s my view that Hitchens was the force he was because he was convinced he was right about something that he felt truly mattered. You can disagree with his conclusions but they were his personal convictions, which he carried, perhaps most devotedly, through the very last days and hours of his life as he faced his own death.
I did not know Christopher Hitchens personally. I guess it’s a bit odd that he’s had the impact upon me that he did. Hitchens inspired me to know more, say it better and be willing to stand in my convictions and let the chips fall where they may.
I was moved by Hitchens’ brutal honesty and raw humanity in his last book, Mortality. I am grateful for Hitchens and I feel a love in my heart for him. I’m also angry with Hitchens. I wanted some sort of nice pretty bow at the end of his final book and life. I wanted his death to somehow be okay. Some grand and comforting resolution to his departing. I got none. Instead he wrote, “To the dumb question "Why me?" the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: why not?”
In the final pages of Mortality, Hitchens scribbled an entry that includes a quote from the book, Einstein’s Dreams, which is a 1992 novel by Alan Lightman. The novel fictionalizes Albert Einstein as a young scientist who is troubled by dreams as he works on his theory of relativity in 1905. The book consists of 30 chapters, each exploring one dream about time that Einstein had during this period.
Hitchens’ entry in the final pages of his book that references Einstein’s Dreams reads as follows:
From Alan Lightman’s intricate 1993 novel Einstein’s Dreams; set in Berne in 1905:
With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great-aunts… and so on, back through the generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own… Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.
I’m not sure why these words would have been of such importance for Hitchens to have referenced them in the final days of his life. The quote appears to be saying that there is an immortality that exists in the sense that the living are always afoot in the shadows and influences of those who have passed before us. As a result of this immortality, no living person is ever truly whole or free. In this scenario, true freedom could only come from mortality.
Maybe this was Hitchens’ making final peace with life and death – his way of saying that he saw mortality as the doorway to the freedom we spend a whole lives seeking.
I guess we’ll never know.