Say what you will about Christopher Hitchens, he’s an incredibly smart man. Although I vehemently disagree with him on the most important question of all—“Is there life after death?”—I respect his intelligence immensely. And I respect that his writing causes me to more thoroughly examine my own beliefs. He puts his critics through a rigorous crash course, and only those who are road-tested should bring their intellectual vehicles into the arena.
As he stands on the precipice of death, he does so with honor. He may be a philosophical “enemy,” but he most certainly is an honorable one.
“One thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to: In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that ‘Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’
In fact, I now sometimes wonder why I ever thought it profound. It is usually attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche: Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker. In German it reads and sounds more like poetry, which is why it seems probable to me that Nietzsche borrowed it from Goethe, who was writing a century earlier. But does the rhyme suggest a reason? Perhaps it does, or can, in matters of the emotions. I can remember thinking, of testing moments involving love and hate, that I had, so to speak, come out of them ahead, with some strength accrued from the experience that I couldn’t have acquired any other way. And then once or twice, walking away from a car wreck or a close encounter with mayhem while doing foreign reporting, I experienced a rather fatuous feeling of having been toughened by the encounter. But really, that’s to say no more than “There but for the grace of god go I,” which in turn is to say no more than “The grace of god has happily embraced me and skipped that unfortunate other man.”
In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker.”
I would not wish Christopher Hitchens’ fate on anyone. The pain he’s gone through during the course of his treatment is beyond words—even the eloquent ones put together by him. However, I must disagree with the thrust of his argument, and not just because maxims are general rules that apply to most (but not all) situations.
Christopher’s observations spring forth from his atheism, which is sad because logic and reason are equally capable of leading individuals to believe death isn’t an end, but the beginning. If human beings were a mere collection of atoms and molecules and electronic synapses firing in the just the right way as to create the illusion of consciousness…he’d be right. But if there is a reason behind it all—if we’re here for a purpose—then whatever doesn’t kill us does make us stronger. Spiritually stronger.
While we’re on earth, the mind, body, and spirit must work together. The spirit is constrained by an imperfect vessel, but when all three are in sync humans are often witness to great deeds. When all three are in sync we are given insight into the awesome power that resides deep inside us.
Sometimes, the mind betrays the spirit. Sometimes, the body betrays the spirit. And sadly, sometimes the body and the mind betray the spirit. At that point the spirit often decides that it has gathered all the knowledge it can from our earthly plane, and gives in to death.
Life is a precious thing, and those close-call car crashes that Christopher jokingly responds to by saying, “The grace of god has happily embraced me and skipped that unfortunate other man,” are most certainly not celestial coin-flips. Every person we meet, every experience we have—every joy, every sorrow—happens for a reason. The religious man knows that there are answers for all his questions, but that they will not be revealed to him in his human form. The religious man knows that he has been given five senses with which to understand the universe, but that there are things at play that are beyond his fives senses.
Chris ends his piece on a similarly dour note:
So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.
Chris has an incredibly strong soul, but for whatever reason he’s convinced himself it doesn’t exist. He closes his eyes and wonders why he can’t see God. He’s numbed his heart, and wonders why he can’t feel God’s love and mercy.
Believer or not, he’ll be in my prayers.
Update: Head on over to Hotair, where they cover Christopher Hitchens’ passing.