Hitchens and Mortality

Well, it’s after midnight, which means I’ve been terribly remiss. Two years ago yesterday, 15 December 2011, Christopher Hitchens died. (Incidentally, two years ago today, Kim Jong-Il died, broken-hearted at having lost the one person on Earth who understood what a truly twisted, cockatiel-haired little psychopath he was.) Hitchens’ death affected me more profoundly than the death of any other public figure, and recently reading his autobiography and re-reading his short volume “Letters to a Young Contrarian” both saddened me and emboldened me to renew my efforts to make some impact, however small, towards making this planet a better place for my fellow primates to live. The man himself would likely have regarded me as slightly obsequious, but sometimes it is hard to repress feelings of admiration. I didn’t agree with him about everything, but he could never be accused of having made a statement lightly, or of being unable to defend his positions with admirable reasoning, delivered in an infuriatingly clever way. As for thoughts on death, I’ve yet to hear someone better Hitchens:

“Well, to the people who pray for me to not only have an agonising death, but then be reborn to have an agonising and horrible eternal life of torture, I say, ‘Well, good on you. See you there.”

And:

“They call it gallows humor for a reason. You may laugh at death all you like, but only on the condition that you allow death the concluding cackle.”

To follow Hitchens’ own advice, it is important to remember to regard every expert as a mammal. Hitchens was every bit the fallible human, capable of error, boorishness and arrogance. However, I would claim that it could never be said of him that he was a friend to tyranny, earthly or celestial, and nor was he willing to surrender an inch of hard-won ground to those offering threats of eternal or temporal harm. Unlike prophets and preachers, whose words must be regarded as sanctified and inviolable, instead we ought to take Hitchens’ work as exactly what it is – the thoughts of a fellow human, sometimes correct, sometimes incorrect, but always worth considering and challenging. Even violent disagreement, if it stimulates thought and results in a more well-reasoned conclusion, can be of tremendous value.

From Hitchens, I learned that the written word can stir more than simple emotion or excite the imagination. Purpose and intent can be communicated through the pages of a book, and can stimulate a strangely irresistible impulse to action in the right mind. For now, I can honestly say that I don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I do know how I want to do it – boldly, intelligently, and always remembering that as this is the only life of which we can be assured, squandering too much of it on useless or malicious endeavours is an irretrievable waste.

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