It’s funny, when you know somebody is going to die. You have the notion prepared in your head so ideally, when the inevitable comes around, it will not be so jarring. And yet, it always is. Such were my feelings when I learned last night that Christopher Hitchens had finally died from his long bout with esophageal cancer. He was only 62, and he knew well in advance how soon his life was likely to end. He shared it with his audience with uncommon candor, and in the end, though Hitchens was himself a deeply argumentative and polarizing writer (not least on topics such as his deeply held atheism), that has not prevented even his critics from having a moment of silence for the man.
I wrote about Hitchen’s appointment with mortality not long ago, in the context of what it means to face our end with dignity, and our beliefs intact. Hitchens was a fellow who feared nothing, who made it his life’s work to drive home tough arguments on tough subjects, and he often did it in a way that turned off as many people as it turned on. But the skill, intellect and wit with which he made his points, and sparred with his debate partners, drew a great deal of respect and admiration, even from those who disagreed with him the most.
I do not feel bad for Hitchens’ passing necessarily out of how much I do or do not agree with what he wrote. (On some points, Hitch and I are on the same page; on others, not so much.) I feel bad because we live in a time of decreasing attention spans, decreasing intellectualism and decreasing strength of character. We live in a time that places a high value on what comedian and satirist Stephen Colbert brilliantly described as “truthiness” – a world view that might not have anything to do with reality, but has everything to do with convincing oneself that the world they want to see is the world that is really there. Against such a backdrop, Hitchens was a figure who reminded everybody that there was still room left in the world for fierce examination of concepts and ideas that were considered off-limits. He made the argument that it was alright to believe deeply, fiercely about things, but that one had better have the chops to back up their position. And if not, to be prepared for the dressing down to follow.