I first posted this in August of 2009. I thought it might have some new meaning now, as it expresses as well as anything I could currently write, my feelings on the passing of Christopher Hitchens.
Christopher Hitchens is probably dying and I care
Recently Christopher Hitchens, author, journalist, malcontent and enlightenment man with an abrasive way about him, woke up, according to his own account, feeling as though he might be dying. His intuition was impeccable and recently he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, one of the two or three worst kinds, to my mind (and in my mind “worst” means having a uniformly slim chance of survival, a rapid course, and a horrible, painful, dehumanizing passage).
I would not wish such a thing on anyone – no, not anyone. It’s not my way to do that sort of thing, and though I’ve had a few go-rounds with Hitchens, who has managed to get my goat on a number of occasions and levels (political, spiritual, even at his own game – more about this later), and I’ve sometimes criticized him quite harshly, he is an intelligent man and a worthy opponent. I’d not much liked his politics over the past 20 years, and I’d very much disliked his anti-deist reasoning far more than his anti-deism, even though I do believe in a supreme being or some sort of First Cause. This has not set well with Hitchens during the recent rise of neoatheism, and while I may not qualify as a Christian by the standards of many Christians (at least of the fundamentalist persuasion) I do relate well to those of the Tillich/Spong/Teilhard school of what I would call Rational Deism with a touch of mystic Christianity. While I don’t care much for organized religion and feel I graduated from that many years ago, I can at least get along well with many of the more enlightened, less irrational types that characterize the political right for me.
So Hitchens and I have had some differences, largely because I’ve felt he not only cherry picked his god-concept (Zeus), but also argued against any evidence of things not seen, of belief not always based on empirical evidence. He did this quite noisily and obnoxiously at times, in a way bound to draw those argumentative types like me, who might otherwise have just said “Good point, old boy.” Then I learned of his diagnosis and the bottom fell out of my antipathy for him. I am a medical person by trade. I have seen things one probably ought not have seen. I know more than is good for me, in all probability, but that knowledge does at least help me understand and comfort, sometimes, or at least competently care for, people afflicted with god-awful (you should forgive the term) conditions.
I watched recently an interview Hitchens allowed with Anderson Cooper. It was, to me, quite amazing in a number of ways, an actually left me feeling uplifted even as I felt this profound sadness in the knowledge of the slim probability that Hitchens would be one of the 15 per cent (if indeed he is in stage 3 of the disease as I gather) who survive five years. Medically this is not a good statistic, except perhaps for that 15 per cent, and they do exist. Out of them about one third live out relatively normal lifespans. The rest, the 85 per cent, go through a particularly terrible decline and death.
During the interview with Cooper, Hitchens was asked if he was anxious or depressed about the finding, and rather surprisingly, he answered that he “remains hopeful” and has not become “fatalistic.” We will return to this notion of hopefulness shortly.
There was also raised the issue of many who have publicly stated their wish that people pray for Hitchens during his hour of darkness. Some are simply encouraging prayers. Others are suggesting people pray that he “get right with God” or accept Jesus as his personal lord and savior. I find the latter two classes of prayer suggestions offensive in the extreme, exceedng even the intrusiveness of Jehova's Witnesses who show up at my door (or now even on my telephone) to tell me things I really don't need to hear. I can understand why people who consider themselves Christian or Muslim or Jew or whatever variation may include prayers for the health and welfare of others would encourage others to share in whatever they conceive as prayer for a good outcome for a fellow human. To ask for prayers that said fellow human change, in his last days, his essential outlook, his world view, or to abandon one of his most fiercely-held and well-reasoned differences with them simply to make themselves feel better, I find incredibly arrogant and intrusive. I’ve had the discussion with at least one very rational atheist who resides here on Open Salon, regarding the potential good or evil of intercessory prayer. I can make, I think, a decent argument for it (quantum physics are involved) and none against it, since if the patient doesn't know about it, it can do him no harm.
Hitchens, who in the past would have (and has) expressed frank contempt for such activities, has actually stated his appreciation and an uncharacteristically warm welcome to these expressions of both concern and even hubris, saying it can do no harm and even may “make them feel better.”
For a man who has reasoned his way outward and away from the God concept over the course of his life, I find this attitude generous at least and perhaps quite loving and lovely. It is more, I think, than I could allow, and I am a nominal believer (although I have been told by at least one atheist friend that I have by my own arguments placed myself in the atheist camp, something I continue to ponder with great interest; then again I’ve always considered myself something of a conservative, if only by nature, yet have been told, correctly, that I am in reality more of a radical left-winger. Perhaps the nation has slid so far to the right that I am now dangling from the portside. It doesn’t matter: I am who I am. Labels become tiresome).
Hitchens has said in more than one interview that if he ever does make any statements, in his final days or hours, that suggest he may be changing his tune or calling out to God for mercy, that it will be on account of his drug-and-disease addled, “demented” condition. While we would not be able to know that for certain, it seems a reasonable conclusion.
Hitchens has also taken responsibility , quite reasonably, for the current state of his health, citing all the violations he’s committed against his own body that may have helped trigger this particular form of cancer. He has also stated that rather than anxious he finds himself “bored” with the process of being ill and being treated, of “sitting passively while poison is injected into your body” (chemotherapy described quite accurately). He is not “fighting” the cancer, he says. He is merely doing what medically gives him the best (slim) chance of survival. His equanimity under pressure is remarkable, and I have met few rational Christians who could manage to be as calm. He brings to mind, in fact, Warren Zevon in the late stages of mesothelioma, stating that “I’m okay with it.” One can be “okay “ with it or one can go into full fight-or-flight mode. The outcome will likely be the same either way; in fact it may be worsened by out-of-control aniety and/or depression.
So back to that earlier reference to Hitchens’ remark that he “remains hopeful.” What, exactly, is hope, especially in the face of statistically likely death in a relatively short time? To listen to the man it doesn’t sound irrational, but rather comes across as a calm, thought-out statement regarding the odds. It does not sound like a thinking machine, but like a thinking, feeling, human who would much prefer to live out a normal lifespan. It does not sound at all like what I have come to expect to hear from Hitchens. It sounds like grace. What on earth, then, am I suggesting? Do I think Hitchens is having a spiritual breakthrough on the installment plan? No! Absolutely not. I believe him when he continues to argue that grace, prayer, and the intercession of some Zeuss-like figure in the sky might change the course of his disease. What I do hear is the softening of stridency brought about by the experience of looking one’s own death in the face. It is a humbling experience and it makes many people better for having had it. I believe it improved me a great deal the first time I was forced to do it – and I survived and am in pretty good shape lo these sixteen years later. I probably had people praying for me. I hope it made them feel better. What I am suggesting, though, is that the comment about hope approaches something like a prayer, like the process I refer to as prayer. In fact, my praying is hoping. It is hope, in fact, held with ultimate clarity and outside the stream of chatter that comes through in daily life. It is hope felt in meditation, in compartmentalization, and without denial of the evidence that can be seen and measured by this absurd statistical world in which we live. We not long ago, as a nation, elected a President largely on the basis of two very simple concepts: change (largely undefined except by the known) and hope. In fact, "The Audacity of Hope." Hope is audacious, always, because it is a wish, like a prayer, that things will turn out differently than the statistics tell us is probable.
The World English Dictionary defines “hope” in the following ways:
— n 1. ( sometimes plural ) a feeling of desire for something and confidence in the possibility of its fulfilment: his hope for peace was justified ; their hopes were dashed 2. a reasonable ground for this feeling: there is still hope 3. a person or thing that gives cause for hope 4. a thing, situation, or event that is desired: my hope is that prices will fall 5. not a hope , some hope used ironically to express little confidence that expectations will be fulfilled
— vb (often foll by for ) 6. ( tr; takes a clause as object or an infinitive ) to desire (something) with some possibility of fulfilment: we hope you can come ; I hope to tell you 7. to have a wish (for a future event, situation, etc) 8. ( tr; takes a clause as object ) to trust, expect, or believe: we hope that this is satisfactory
The difference between “hope” and “pray” in the same dictionary is a simple one: Hope is held in the human heart. Prayer is aimed at some outer intercessor, generally to God, Jesus, The Virgin Mother, some saint, etc., but also often, and especially in the archaic form, to another person. That other person may be a doctor, a criminal, a loan officer, a loan shark, a judge, etc.
When I hope Christopher Hitchens will somehow manage to suvive this challenge he’s facing, I hold it, most sincerely, in my heart. If God resides in my heart, then God, whatever God may be, will receive the message as well. From what I am taught by my Christian upbringing, this God already knows what I hope anyway; some believe “he” will only respond, however, if I deliberately direct it to “his” attention. I refuse to play that game.
The hope, the desire, is precisely the thing someone else would pray for, perhaps on his knees, maybe even with hands pressed together, as though posturing (the perfect word) will ensure the message reaches that ephemeral god-thing. Either way, we have released within our mind a wish, an express desire, to the universe, to our own self, to the collective unconscious, or, perhaps, to that unknown and unknowable God.
I hope for Hitchens' survival, just as I hope for many things: it is not unlike a prayer.
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