Saturday, 1 March 2014

Hitchens: How an atheist confronted death

Christopher Hitchens died on 15 December 2011. He died of cancer of the esophagus. He fought it as best as he could and the struggle was unfortunately lost. He was only 62 when he died. I came to know this man because I am a Christian. And as a Christian, the works of this man cannot be ignored. Christopher was a diehard atheist. Unlike his brother (Peter Hitchens), he lived as an atheist and subsequently died as one.
I am always intrigued by this man who wrote with such effortless
notoriety that even his enemies, if they are honest enough, would deeply respect. One may not agree with what he has to say, and oh what eloquence he had said it, but Christopher is no different from any man I know who is trying his darnest best to understand the world he lives in and the world beyond.
Sometimes, I am guilty of this self-indulgence to feel that we are all victims of the daunting mystery that surrounds us. And this mystery has two faces about her. One face toys with us, plodding
us to defy it, challenging us to go against it. Then there is another face. It is the face of love, joy and peace. It is a face of assurances and reassurances.
For people like Christopher, for reasons beyond me, they often find themselves confronting the former “provocative” face of this mystery rather than the latter. And because of that, they dig their heels even deeper into the ground and refuse to budge. They will therefore do battle against this mystery until they heave their last breath – as Christopher did.
Now, who is ultimately right and stands on the
side of truth is not what I want to discuss here. I have my view and the late Christopher had his. But when I read his book Mortality, I realized there is something about this man that I admired. He was one who faced death and life and the "in-betweens" with such all-embracing resolute that only a man of faith can earnestly boast about.
For him, life is precious and death is ashes. The end is the end. He doesn't fear death in the same way that a martyr doesn't fear it. The only difference is that one sees death as the start of eternal 
life and the other sees it as the start of eternal oblivion. Both deal with eternity on terms they are familiar with but offer a different definition of what to expect (or not expect) after a life expires.
His wife, Carol Blue, recalls a time when during their wedding anniversary, his two-year-old daughter saw a bumble bee lying motionless on the ground. She then cried, "No, no, no! The bee stopped." And then, she made a command, "Make it start." At this time, his wife observed that 
"Christopher then lifted her into his lap and consoled and distracted her with a change of subject and humor. Just as he would, with all his children, so many years later, when he was ill."
I guess Christopher would rather deal with life than death because the latter is the end of it all. This is the same man who had led an active life, touring around the globe to write, debate, teach, educate, enlighten and evangelize (anti-evangelize?). He would invite people from all walks of life to gather for a meal in his house. During such time,
 Christopher would really shine like a supernova explosion.
This was how his wife puts it in the book. "At home at one of the raucous, joyous, impromptu eight-hour dinners we often found ourselves hosting, where table was so crammed with ambassadors, hacks, political dissidents, college students, and children that elbows were colliding and it was hard to find the space to put down a glass of wine, my husband would rise to give a toast that could go on for a stirring, spellbinding, hysterically funny twenty minutes of poetry
 and limerick reciting, a call to arms for a cause, and jokes. "How good it is to be us," he would say in his perfect voice."
Indeed, Christopher was an impossible act to follow. Even when he was told that he had cancer and it had metastasized, Christopher still kept up the humor and charm. During such time, his words were both ironic and witty.  His feelings poured out in his writings and at one time, he wrote, "In one way, I suppose, I have been "in denial" for some time, knowingly burning the
 candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can't see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it's all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me. Rage would be besides the point for the same reason. Instead, I am badly oppressed by the gnawing sense of waste."

This gnawing sense of waste was most viscerally felt during those dastardly blood extraction sessions. The agony of going through it was unbearably painful. He wrote that "one had to stop pretending that the business was effectively painless. No more the jaunty talk of "one little pinch". It doesn't actually hurt that much to have a probing needle inserted for a second time. No, what hurts is having it moved to and fro, in the hope that it can properly penetrate the veins and release the needful fluid. And the more
this is done, the more it hurts."
In one incident, he was advised to insert a permanent blood catheter to dispense with the trouble of repeated temporary insertion. Christopher was assured that it would be a swift procedure and it would not take more than ten minutes. However, it stretched past two hours when the nurses and technician tried their desperate best to get it right. The prolonged drama of pain took twelve attempts to finish the job and any illusion that even the seemingly swiftest procedure in this whole cancer 
treatment could be painless was readily dispelled from Christopher's mind after that.
In the book, he kept going back to that famous phrase by Nietzsche (who borrowed it from Goethe), “That which doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.” This is the victory chant for many trauma survivors. But to Christopher, he saw it in a less optimistic light. He lamented that there is a danger that that which doesn’t kill you may not just maim or disable you for life, but sinisterly contribute to your death sooner or later.
Even for people who are healthy, this dark side of the Nietzschean quote can somehow be intimately felt. Some mishaps in life, when they happen and are irrevocable, act as a ticking mortal time bomb that marks the beginning of a downward slide into an unbearable, interminable suffering of the most unspeakable, undignified kind. So, in an ironically morbid way, that which doesn’t kill you now often make you want to kill yourself later. I guess this is why, when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and going blind, the highly learned Catholic theologian Hans Kung went public to endorse mercy killing and rationalized it as follows, “I do not wish to go on living as a shadow of myself…People have a right to die when they see no more hope of being able to continue a humane life, however they define that.
Christopher recalled in the book the painful experiences of the late Professor Sidney Hook, who was a formidable materialist and pragmatist, and an unrelenting atheist. He too died from a serious illness. But to him, the real torture was not the ultimate end but the road leading to it. Professor Hook largely attributed his continued living as a cruel act to be kept sentient just so as he could experience even more pain.
At one point in the treatment, the late Professor recounted this grim reality. “I lay at the point of death. A congestive heart failure was treated for diagnostic purposes by an angiogram that triggered a stroke. Violent and painful hiccups, uninterrupted for several days and nights, prevented the ingestion of food. My left side and one of my vocal cords became paralyzed. Some form of pleurisy (inflammation of the lining surrounding the lungs) set in, and I felt I was drowning in a sea of slime. In one of my lucid intervals during those days of agony, I asked my physician to discontinue all life-supporting services or show me how to do it.”  His physician denied his request and said rather loftily, “someday I would appreciate the unwisdom of my request.”
Well, whether Professor Hook ever appreciated the intervention or not, one thing was clear to him, he still insisted on ending his life for three reasons. He might suffer another debilitating stroke, this time even more crippling than the one before. Second, he wanted to spare his family the nightmarish experience. And thirdly, he felt that “medical resources were being pointlessly expended.”
At this point in the book, Christopher wrote, “In the course of his essay, he (Professor Hook) used a potent phrase to describe the position of others who suffer like this, referring to them as lying on “mattress graves””. I guess this funereal mood was not too far from how Christopher himself must have felt in his own cursed trials. Of course, he fought valiantly to the end. But even so, this was the same person who wrote, “I’m not fighting or battling cancer – it’s fighting me.”
As an atheist, and the leading champion for its causes, Christopher received many responses from the religious community when news of his terminal illness broke out. In the book, he mentioned a few of them and the strangest response is from a website. It reads, "Who else feels Christopher Hitchens getting terminal throat cancer (sic) was God's revenge for him using his
 voice to blaspheme him? Atheists like to ignore FACTS. They like to act like everything is a "coincidence". Really? It's just a "coincidence" that out of any part of his body, Christopher Hitchens got cancer in the one part of his body for blasphemy? Yeah, keep believing that, Atheists. He's going to writhe in agony and pain and wither away to nothing and then die a horrible agonizing death, and THEN comes the real fun, when he's sent to HELLFIRE forever to be tortured and set afire."

This letter worries me a lot. 
I wonder what kind of god is the writer worshipping? I wonder how would his god view his action? I wonder why is he filled with so much hatred for atheists? For Christopher, he took it all in his stride. The absurdity of the letter was an easy target for him and his riposte was vintage Hitchens. You will have to read his book at page 13 to get a feel of how the master critic did it. But while some believers poured scorn on him, there were others who offered encouragement and prayers. There was even a day
 designated for him on 20 September 2010 called "Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day."

Many had wished Christopher to make a deathbed conversion. These people came from all religious backgrounds. There were reputable Catholics, Jews and Protestants. Even a song was dedicated to him by Cat Stevens (or Yusuf Islam) called "I Think I See the Light". During such time, Christopher was spoiled for religious choices and a person of his sharp wit would not let the opportunity to make a godless splash slip by.  

 was what he wrote about the floodgates of religious persuasions available to him in the face of the fragility of his mortality. "And this apparent ecumenism has other contradictions, too. If I were to announce that I had suddenly converted to Catholicism, I know that Larry Taunton and Douglas Wilson (who were Protestant evangelical conservatives) would feel I had fallen into grievous error. On the other hand, if I were to join either of their Protestant evangelical groups, the followers of Rome would not think my soul
was much safer than it is now, while a later-in-life decision to adhere to Judaism or Islam would inevitably lose me many prayers from both fractions. I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire, who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.

True to the end, Christopher advised the religious world at large to save their prayers for themselves. He did not see how prayers could work for him. In the book, he cited the study carried out by the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer of 2006 as proof that there is “no correlation at all between the number and regularity of prayers offered and the likelihood that the person being prayed for would have improved chances.” What is interesting in the study was how there could actually be a negative correlation, “in that some patients suffered slightly additional woe when they failed to manifest any improvement. They felt that they had disappointed their devoted supporters.

A man of sheer pragmatism and cold logic, Christopher wrote these sympathetic words to his religious well-wishers, “I don’t mean to be churlish about any kind intentions, but when September 20 comes, please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries. Unless, of course, it makes you feel better.”

At this junction, and strictly from a religious perspective, I wonder what God thinks about this rebellious child of his. Unlike the Prodigal son who finally returned to a hearty feast, what welcome (or disappointment) awaits Christopher? For a man who stood in utter defiance against his divine Creator, how would judgment be meted out to him?

For many, it seems like a foregone conclusion and the trite narrative goes something like this: Christopher would face a Christ-less eternity. He did not repent when given the many opportunities and this is therefore his irredeemable fate. He had made his bed and now upon death, in complete rejection of God, he has to sleep on it…most probably in the burning pits of fiery hell.

This is the point when I generally give pause and think about it in a more sympathetic, humanistic light. I try to picture Christopher Hitchens (“CH’) and God having this dialogue with each other before the sentence of
 eternal condemnation is pronounced. This is another self-indulgence, so please pardon me as I bring this to an end.

CH: Is that it? Hell for me? For eternity?

God: Yes. Next.

CH: Wait...wait. I repent. I now know better.

God: You had your chances. You turned away. You rejected me remember?

CH: Yes...but now I see you in the flesh. I can hear you. I feel you. I am ready to accept. 
I accept!
God: It's too late. It is written... 

CH: But this is the first time I see
 you in full regalia majesty. I can't argue with that anymore. You are real. I am convinced. I receive.
God: My son came and died...

CH: Yes...yes. That was millennia ago. As long as I had lived, I did not see him. He did not make any appearance. I ask for a definite sign and I got crazy people telling me crazy things. None of them showed any proof. There’s nothing I can put my trust on. And by the way, where is he anyway?

Jesus: Here I am....on his right...

CH: are really are real (stunned)

God: Yes, we are all real.

CH: Ok, it's all clear to me now. Can I have a second chance? Please…
God: It is already written. Next.

CH: Wait...surely I don't deserve hell, especially for eternity. I have done nothing wrong except to use what you have given me to the fullest. It is just unfortunate that I used it against you instead of for you. But I am only human. I make mistake. It was an error in judgment. To err is forgive is well you? Shit, Richard and Sam would be in for such a shock of their life! (murmurs)

God: My son is the only way. You openly rejected him. It is too late.

CH: What is too late? Surely this is all technicality right? (panicky) Compared to a mass murderer who repents before heaving his last breath and me who repent just after, aren't we splitting hair? 

God: It is written. Next.

CH: I know it is written. Please unwrite it. Eternity is such a long time for an error of judgment. I have lived an honest life...well as best as I know how. I am flawed. I am far from perfect. Apart from that, I am no evil person. I am like so
many of those people who have made it to heaven. What's the difference between them and I? Maybe I just think more, reflect more and come to a conclusion that I now regret. My only sin is to live an examined life. Surely that doesn't warrant eternal condemnation? 
And by the way, is Socrates in heaven?
God: Chris, my son, you have lived the way you wanted, forsaking that which is important in your life and the life thereafter. You used what I have given you to rebel against all that is good. Now you are paying the price for 
it. It is too late for you. 

CH: Too late? What is too late? Oh God, Oh God, if only you came to me when I cried out for you in my youth. If only you appeared just once to me when I was drowning in doubts, it would have change the course of my life. And what a formidable change it would have been to have someone like me on your side! Imagine a mid-life conversion and the books and tours I could have embarked on to tell the world about you! So, why? Why play this game of hide and seek when it is somehow rigged in a way that you can
 never be found until it's too late? Why this divine elusiveness, hiding in the shadows, making stillness your cover, always insinuating but never openly revealing, telling me about a past narrative that leaves so much evidential loopholes, leaving broken trails, dastardly discontinuities, questions that can never be answered? Why... why? 

God: Faith, my son. Faith. 

CH: Faith? All that because of faith? And I am hereby sentenced to eternal condemnation without 
any chance of a divine parole all because I had earnestly questioned the substance of things hope for and evidence of things I could not see and came to the opposite conclusion? Do you know how many sincere people out there will be going to hell because they put their faith in reason rather than their faith in faith? And I suppose those religious fanatics who clamored for my horrendous death by extreme torture are in heaven now because they showed more nebulous faith than valorous brains! 

God: Chris, no one stands before my mercy throne except you. You are being judged and you are being judged alone. It is already written. Now depart from me. Next…
CH: …mercy? (look of utter dismay and incredulity)…

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