Originally published December 18, 2011
When Christopher Hitchens died those few days ago, the world lost a champion journalist – one of the relative few who never lost the quest for truth instead of chasing sensationalism. What made him a great journalist and writer was not only his extensive vocabulary and appreciation of language, but that he appreciated the mind and independent thinking. Hitchens knew, and spoke of, that we make our choices in life and part of human make up is hedonism. Hitchens did not hide his thoughts nor make any apologies for any of his habits or choices, whether that was the drinking, smoking or anything else he liked or didn’t (as anyone who ever saw his speeches on religion will know).
I don’t consider his passing a sad day though. A tragic event, certainly; but Hitchens himself mentioned in his lifetime that death is a guarantee and we have to fill that time in how we see fit, and even with his sad diagnosis with cancer, he had no remorse of his life. And that’s something to be celebrated, so many people reach the final innings and wish they’d changed, done something else, not done something in particular, in a naive and ultimately false idea of continuing to live – sure, we may have been able to go longer had be refrained from a certain activity, but death will still come. As Bill Hicks said of non-smokers: “I know you entertain some eternal life fantasy, but… you’re dead too.” We’re all dead too, life is the mere passage of time before that event.
But i don’t think the death of Hitchens wasn’t a sad day just because he himself accepted it, or we’re all going to die. I don’t think it was a sad day because in his moment of dying a large number of people around the world suddenly learned about him, heard his words, read his words, became informed of his opinion. In other words, his death allowed him to complete to some degree what he had been trying for in life. It is sad that the world lost such an intellectual giant, but his words, message and teachings live on through the immortalisation of text and videos.
What struck me about Hitchens and his attitude of life – from politics, religion and personal activities – was that he seemed to hold the mind over the body. He was a man who openly encouraged people to take pleasure in what they want to, and who spoke about language being the most important weapon. And it’s long been known that those in public health value the body over the mind. It’s a major distinction, and i’m firmly in the former camp. It is the mind that allows great advancements, it’s the progression of the mind that lets us enjoy new technologies, it’s our mind that helps our mood and emotions, it’s our mind that ultimately changes the world. When it comes to tobacco smoking, we have Hitchens on one side, who said that booze and fags are pleasure, and public health officials on the other side, who fail to see (or simply ignore it) that life is more than our physical health, that it’s more than how long we live. Hitchens is good proof of this – here’s a man who died at 62 and accomplished more than most people would hope to in a longer period of time.
Considering mental health is clearly a part of health, it’s a wonder that public health officials have all but stricken it from consideration. It’s our body that counts and nothing else. And what makes me say this is because the outright hysteria over smoking is all because of the health risks to our physical health, despite the large body of evidence that smoking greatly benefits our brains, from memory to concentration to risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Coming from a family where i’ve witnessed both diseases and cancer, i can firmly state that losing the mind seems much worse to me than losing the body.
The day Hitchens died also happened to be the 50th birthday of the late Bill Hicks, another famed thinker who has received more acclaim and praise since his untimely death. And i marked that day as one in which people had their awareness heightened, as more exposure was forced to those who knew of these men and those who didn’t, making it a day of greater thinking.
And while death is a sad topic, i can only think of that as a good thing.