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.
I found it interesting that on my social media profile, many of my friends noted Hitchens’ passing. More than a few of my friends are openly and sincerely religious, and you might imagine that a guy like Hitchens would draw a little schadenfreude, or at least silence from those believers Hitchens was convinced were delusional. But no…those friends of mine still wished that he rest in peace. Regardless of how our thoughts and beliefs of the eternal may differ, there is still a connection there among all camps to mark the passing of a great mind.
Hitchens did not decry religion because he thought it unimportant. To the converse: he thought it an extremely important topic worth discussing. And while he considered religion to be a bad, destructive influence, I suppose what is more important than what he thought is why he thought it: because in the end, he cared deeply about the welfare of his fellow man. This, I suppose, is what my friends who did not agree with him still saw in him. After all, Hitchens chose to fight his battles with words and in the arena of public discourse, rather than with fists or bullets, which is more than can be said for many of the people with whom he shared this planet. Whether he was right or wrong is beside the point, really.
In the end, Hitchens’ death reminds us all, believer and non-believer alike, that we are united in our mortality, and that whatever awaits us beyond the mortal veil, there is this one world, and our brief time on it, that we can share with each other, to try to make things as best as they can be, to build each other up, to challenge each other, to strive for greatness…and to share in our humanity when each of us inevitably passes from it.