Memento Mori, “To This Favour,” 1879This week I read Christopher Hitchen’s work, Mortality. The book is composed of a series of articles he wrote for the Vanity Fair about his journey with esophagus cancer.  He wasn’t aware of the cancer until June 2010 and by Dec 2012, he passed away.    What I experienced while reading it was wide ranging, but mostly a thick cloud of melancholy.   The subject of cancer always seems to tug at me emotionally.  Generally, I am stoic and, unbelievably, I can count the number of times I have cried in the life– on one hand!

The reason, I think, is my time in patient-care. The cancer patients were the most humbling to take care of.  Usually, cancer seems to take the best people– the ones with the good character and a great family. Seeing them wither away far from their former selves so quickly– is all too haunting to me. My mortality is greater realized when I see, even the strongest individuals, struggle to keep their spirits up.

When I first saw my patient stare into her mirror, she barely recognize the stranger looking back at her.

I couldn’t say ‘everything is going to be ok’ ( I didn’t know that).

Given her reaction, I couldn’t say ‘you look better today’ (She looked worse and more feeble).

I couldn’t even give her encouragement to fight on! I didn’t want her to feel obligated or have her feel like she is letting me or anyone down, when really, she had little control over her cancer’s outcome.

If she got worse, I would always tell her it was not because of lack of will.  Instead, I would say, “I’m here for you today.”

I can’t but feel inadequate.

Most people, I would imagine, turn to God in those turbulent times.  Mortality is a far too foreign concept, to me at least.  Can you imagine your existence ceasing and no longer being alive?  I can’t.  I feel as if I will always exist.

Christopher Hitchens stands — bravely– in front of the alter of crude reality and– at no point– did he ever make that last leap of faith toward God.

I can’t fathom that.

However, Hitchens didn’t focus on the great unknown.  He focused on what he had always done– write on his concept of a great humanity.  In every aspect of his life, I truly believe he wanted, in his own way, the best for humanity.  Yes, Hitchens was a venomous and a devilish critic towards religion, but this shouldn’t prevent any believer to turn a deaf ear. He had a good heart and good reason.  Good, no matter the source, should be praised and highlighted.  In so doing, we give greater truth to what good is.

I relieved this when Hitchens was receiving a breathing treatment.  The visuals of the misty gas of the nebulizer reminded him of the brilliancy of modern science, but grew into horror in recalling a poem by Wilfred Owens titled, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, that described a gas attack on troops in WWI.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

After that, Hitchens goes on to say we should remain diligent in regulating our medical and scientific institutions for the betterment of humanity rather than for ill.

Nobly, Hitchens reminds himself to hold back on his solipsistic impulses during his treatments. He truly seemed to focus on the issues that matter to him while he was well.  If he were to die prematurely, he hoped his illness and treatment would become valuable to future patients that may suffer similarly.  After his death, he donated his entire body to scientific study.

Even at his lowest points of his treatment, he disapproved stem-cell research where an embryo is deliberately created and destroyed for the purpose of medical treatment. He valued the concept of human life.

For people of faith, an atheist criticism, at times, are sound.  In research and in papers, criticisms improve our processes. John Stewart Mill, a philosopher, believed that truth is fragmented between the different ideologies.  If you read or listen to Hitchens, it does not mean you will adopt everything Hitchens or abandoned your faith.  Most of what a person believes is already crafted before adulthood.  It just means, you might improve your belief’s logic or find a piece of truth.

Hitchins often highlighted people of faith forget about their neighbors, their fellow citizens.

I tend to sympathize with that argument. Often, we are too caught up in our own public perceptions and seek morbid reassurance of our faith by seeking judgments on other groups or individuals.  In so doing, we lose a great part of what Christians are suppose to be (My criticisms). Consequently, people will find other sources to fill the need for greater humility or a greater good.  As demonstrated by Clearance:

Clearance Darrow’s The Myth of the Soul:

When we fully understand the brevity of life, its fleeting joys and unavoidable pains; when we accept the facts that all men and women are approaching an inevitable doom: the consciousness of it should make us more kindly and considerate of each other. This     feeling should make men and women use their best efforts to help their fellow travelers on the road, to make the path brighter and easier as we journey on. It should bring a closer kinship, a better understanding, and a deeper sympathy for the wayfarers who must live a common life and die a common death.”


About Logan

Logan lives in Arkansas
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