The late Christopher Hitchens wanted to be remembered for the excellence of his intellect. No doubt, that hope will be met. As probably the best contemporary practitioner of the extended essay, he and the views he so pungently expressed will impact our societal discourse for many years to come.
After his terminal diagnosis became public, Hitchens wrote, in a characteristic turn of phrase, that he was “living dyingly.” His last book—aptly titled Mortality—has just been published about that experience. I haven’t read it yet, but a review by Katie Roiphe in Slate brought up a point I think well worth pondering:
What is powerful about this book is that Hitchens is doing a close reading of death; he is examining its language, critiquing its clichés. One of the ones he takes on most bitingly and effectively is the idea that “whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” He elaborately describes his disillusion with the axiom, usually attributed to Nietzsche, with relish: “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.”
But Nietzsche was referring to strength of character, not physical vitality. Indeed, watching Hitchens from afar as he valiantly defied his illness—writing and lecturing as he went along—it seemed to me that he personally demonstrated the verity of Nietzsche’s maxim, to the point that he seemed to grow larger than his own impending death.
I have seen up close and personal how the process of dying can paradoxically strengthen and improve us. My father died of colon cancer in 1984. The disease hollowed him out physically, reducing him to a husk. But he grew—oh, how he grew—and died a far stronger, wiser, and better man than he had been before falling ill.
Prior to wrestling with cancer, Dad suffered from an inferiority complex that probably came from being beaten by my grandfather as a child and never graduating high school. This led to an embarrassing (for me, especially as a teenager) braggadocio that amounted to self-apology. You could always count on Dad to go a step too far seeking the approval of others.
But when he became very sick, things changed. As Dad contemplated leaving this life, he spent hours sitting in his backyard overlooking his beloved cactus garden. He discarded the need to call attention to himself and grew very quiet. He found a fortitude that I think was more profound than even his valor during World War II, for which he had been awarded a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars. And he began to see life from the perspective of others, never his strong suit previously.
I recall one event near the end that I think epitomizes the change. He was in a veteran’s hospital in Los Angeles, and befriended an African-American woman who was very ill with sickle cell anemia. One day, while I was visiting, she came into his room and told my father that the one thing she regretted in dying was never being able to afford the cost of recording a song she had composed. Dad asked how much: It would be $375, a hefty hunk of change in those days. He wrote her a check on the spot, as I silently lamented what I thought was a con.
Two weeks later, she came into his room with a cassette player. She set it down and pressed “play.” Her song filled the room. It was a good tune. And my dad, by then very weak, got out of bed and danced! So much for my cynicism.
Such stories are not extraordinary. The question is: Ultimately, do they matter?
Different faiths, non-faiths, and philosophies offer varying answers. But I don’t want to engage in eschatological disputes, so let’s focus instead on the here and now.
I strongly believe that how we die matters corporately. Dad, like Hitchens, inspired others by the way he lived dyingly. No surprise there: Aren’t we all bucked up when we see or hear of others facing death with mettle and pluck? Think Ulysses S. Grant, writing his memoir while dying in great pain from tongue cancer. Some will remember the great admiration America felt when actor Michael Landon—with frankness rarely seen in those days—went on Johnny Carson’s show to discuss his terminal pancreatic cancer. Then there was Ronald Reagan, announcing his own Alzheimer’s disease, turning his face steadfastly toward “the journey that will lead me to the sunset of my life,” and patriotically expressing the belief that “for America, there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”
This is one reason I find the assisted suicide movement so subversive. It rejects the ideal that those who go toe-to-toe against terminal disease uplift the human experience. It seeks to alter our cultural expectations from “Do not go gentle into that good night . . . rage, rage against the dying of the light,” to “Do yourself, your family, and society a favor by getting it over with.”
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism, and consults for the Patients Rights Council and the Center for Bioethics and Culture.