“To the dumb question ‘why me’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?” (Hitchens 6).
This post may be a bit different than the others because this short book evoked many emotions including sadness, fear, and joy, as well as the fact that I’m dealing with my turmoil over the deaths of the children and teachers at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut right now.
Part 1: Book Review of “Mortality”
This book review is of Christopher Hitchens book, “Mortality,” written after he was diagnosed with cancer. Although I was well aware of who Hitchens was considering the fact that he was a controversial public figure, I have never personally read any of his materials until now. I decided to start at the end of his life and work backwards. This short book of only just over a hundred pages only took me part of an afternoon to read at my favorite coffee shop, and it brought me to tears. It is rare that I cry when reading, especially in public. In some ways, the book is raw look at the experiences of having terminal cancer, but it was told by a writer with a brilliant mind and expansive knowledge. At one point, he discussed how he did not fit some of the stages of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief. I loved this quote by Hitchens:
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 no succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me (5).
He goes on to discuss his feelings of loss at not seeing important family and societal events, but he also recognizes this as a form of self pity, using the quote that I placed at the top of this post.
Additionally, Hitchens spends time discussing the norms surrounding being a cancer patient and interacting with other people. One of my favorite parts of the book is when he explores the norm surrounding the phrase, “How are you?” (40). In the US, as he mentions we often ask the question without expecting a deep, or even true, answer. I think about how many times I’ve been having a terrible day and someone asks me this at the grocery store. At some point, I decided that the rote response (or lie), wouldn’t work for me anymore. Often, I say “I’m okay,” which still may be overly enthusiastic compared to my actual feelings. I’ve actually seen this “script” discussed as both a positive and negative for society. Hitchens discusses his own responses to this question, depending on who is asking.
Throughout the book, he discusses his feelings about the people rejoicing, often for “religious” reasons, in his painful death. (Hitchens was a loud voice for a particular type of atheism. I thought that this section of the book was truly powerful. I personally despise it when people discuss how it’s God’s will that something negative or positive happens and how victims of a particular situation brought it on themselves with some kind of “immoral” act.)
The most powerful section of Hitchens, “Mortality,” for me was the one on the erosion of his ability to continue to use his powerful, well-known voice. Of course, it is heartbreaking for anyone to lose their voice, but for a man who made a great difference, for good or ill in the world based on speaking, it seems even more tragic. This was the section that brought me to tears. He discusses how voice is tied to identity and gives some excellent advice for authors that I’ve taken to heart, relating to finding your voice.
As far as recommending this book, I found it to be a powerful look at illness, cancer, life, death, religion, identity, and many other topics. As I have lost loved ones to cancer and have seen the physically and emotionally wracking effects first hand, I actually found his words to to be very refreshingly realistic and hopefully helpful for interacting with persons with terminal cancer in the future. Some readers may prefer to remain blissfully ignorant of the many changes a person’s body and mind may go through during cancer and might find this book to be too “accurate” or detailed. For me, though, I generally prefer to know the unvarnished truth. His advice on identity, finding your voice and writing were helpful to me as a writer, and I might write a post exclusively on that another time. I respect Christopher Hitchens, even when I don’t agree with his positions, because he was willing to cut right to the heart of the matter. I look forward to reading “Hitch-22” sometime in January. I was pondering this book still when the tragic shooting happened in Connecticut, and it led to some of the following thoughts.
Part 2: Mortality of Children in Tragedy
Obviously, dying is dying in one regard. It comes for all of us eventually, and in that way maybe it is “fair.” But we emotionally experience it quite differently depending on all kinds of factors, depending on our culture and norms, religion (or lack thereof), philosophy, the age of the person(s) dying, our relationship to the person dying, the type of death, how directly it impacts our daily lives and many other factors. This week, I felt a great deal of sadness at both thinking of Christopher Hitchens slow, painful death, and the sudden and untimely death of children and staff at Sandy Hook school in Connecticut. Like many people, I find myself thinking about the implications of all of this. As a sociology instructor, while I think it is important to talk about gun control and the ease at which people can get assault rifles, I tend to reflect more on other cultural factors.
As Jackson Katz said in his documentary, “Tough Guise” in 2001, we need to be thinking about violent masculinity. (If you haven’t had a chance to see this documentary, it is very relevant, though older.) Masculinity, and femininity for that matter, are not the same from culture to culture, as has been shown through anthropological studies like Margaret Mead’s work. (There are critiques of some of this research, too.) Even what is considered ideally feminine or masculine within the history of the US has changed. “Tough Guise” focuses on “violent” masculinity and how images in the media may play a role in shaping the identities of men in our culture. Although my students and I usually laugh at points in the video, like when it is shown how ridiculously “ripped” even the action figures that boys play with have become over a few decades, there are many extremely serious points. Katz points out that school shooters are men. He addresses why he thinks this is happening. This week he has written a blog post for Huffingtonpost. Near the end of the video, Katz points out that all of us have a role to play in changing the norms surrounding this, including women. For other sociologists, there is a post on sociological cinema with a clip of Katz’s documentary this week. (I highly recommend sociological cinema for finding good clips to demonstrate concepts for class. I use it all the time during the semester in both my online and seated classes.)
I realize that I may personally play a role in this violent masculinity. While I ethically disagree with violence as a solution to problems, I put my money into all kinds of violent portrayals of masculinity, as witnessed by this blog. I’d like to live in a society where men do not have to be seen as violent or aggressive to be good men. Personally, I think that there needs to be more blurring of the lines when it comes to gender. We need to move away from rigid, dichotomous definitions of what it means to be a woman or man. As adults, we need to reduce our own behaviors bullying others so that children and teens will be more tolerant and even accepting of a wide range of people. Children learn from role modeling, and adults often subtly (and not so subtly) act in ways that are disparaging towards others. While I feel that the individual is important, and we should learn to think for ourselves, I feel that the strong streak of individualism in the US may be our undoing. We need to form stronger bonds with others in our communities, reaching out past the normal lines that divide us.