Friday, December 16, 2011

Brief Reflections on Christopher Hitchens

The very first time I saw a photograph of Christopher Hitchens - one of many where he held a cigarette in one hand and a whiskey in the other - I thought to myself that here was a man who didn't want to see or be bothered by anyone.

Hitchens was a fantastic writer, articulate, insightful and - more often than not - spot on in his arguments. Each book and article was a gift, and I knew that I was going to be smarter - whether I agreed or not - after having read them. As time passed, the image of the gruff contrarian I had built up in my mind no longer matched the words on the page.

A few years ago, I thought I was on the receiving end of this perceived gruffness. I wrote a letter to Hitchens, asking whether - in lieu of my sending copies of all of his books to him for signing - he would consent to send me several signed bookplates to put in each. Month after month passed without the slightest hint of a response, and I had visions of my letter surfacing in the in-box on his desk and then being tossed aside with a scowl, an exclamation of "Bloody hell!", and the general response that any unwanted bill or letter would get. And then, one day, an envelope appeared; Hitchens had apparently tired of my letter continuing to circulate through his correspondence, thought "I'm putting an end to this NOW!", and sent off a reply. There was no note, no "thanks for writing", nothing - just a half-dozen strips of paper which he had apparently torn from a piece of Xerox paper, scrawled his signature on, and then shoved them in the envelope.

I grinned at the thought of him muttering "That takes care of THAT!" as he dropped the mail in the post.

In June 2010, in conjunction with the book tour surrounding the release of his autobiography, Hitch 22, Hitchens came to Politics and Prose here in Washington. I, of course, was determined not to miss it, expecting to see the grumpy, "leave me alone!" contrarian who didn't really want to be there, but had to if he wanted to sell some books.

However, I quickly discovered something that many people have discovered over the years. Christopher Hitchens, the man who always struck me as not wanting to be bothered with anything, who wanted to be left alone with his computer, his cigarettes, and his liquor, was in fact a charming, engaging, and interested man. During the Q&A session there were those in attendance who knew in their heart of hearts - mistakenly, of course - that they could best him in an intellectual duel. There were the requisite questions about his support for the war in Iraq and his atheism, all of which he answered with great wit and great skill - triumphant in yet more debates. If memory serves, one person who had lost the "Hitchens intellectual challenge" immediately left the shop; even if my memory is flawed, it's still a wonderfully hilarious picture to have in mind.

I met him later, during the signing, and he was absolutely fascinating - one of those rare people who, even in the 2 or 3 minutes you have with them, seems genuinely interested in what you're saying. There were flashes of his wit, a few laughs, and a look of pleasant surprise when I mentioned the name of a mutual acquaintance. It was a wonderful time, one which I really enjoyed - and while pictures weren't allowed, the lady in front of me in line was kind enough to sneak this one for me. Naturally, it didn't catch the laughter or conversation; instead, he's looking at me like - yes - he can't be bothered.

And now he is gone, claimed by the cancer which he had been fighting valiantly for some time. My sister wondered aloud this morning if Hitchens had perhaps now found what he had been looking for - an answer to the debate he had engaged in, with great spirit, for many years: whether the God whose existence he had denied would greet him at the gate.

I don't know how to answer that - but if I had to guess, he probably can't be bothered with it now, anyway...

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Your Role in the Nativity: Shepherd, King - or Innkeeper?

Assume for a moment that you have been transported back two millenia and find yourself in Bethlehem (or Nazareth, depending on which of the scholars you take as more reliable) the night of Christ's birth. Now that you are there, let's say that you have the opportunity to be any of the secondary characters involved in the event (aside from Mary, Joseph or the child).

Who would you be?

Instinctively, I think most people would want to assume the role of one of the shepherds or visitors from the East who have come to praise the child and bring gifts. After all, don't we always want to be someone cast in the best possible light, one who adds something rather than one who impedes, one who assists rather than one who ignores?

But in reality, deep down, aren't many of us - for good or bad, by choice or by impulse - more like the innkeeper? Someone who takes the easy way out and gives less than they could, if anything at all, to help someone in need? Isn't it really someone else's problem? And aren't the distractions in our own lives enough to worry about without having to help another through his or her own difficulties?

Somewhere I heard or read (alas, I can't recall) that the innkeeper was a decent person who legitimately had nothing and did all he could to help - and perhaps felt guilt that he couldn't do more. If true, that would be wonderful - but somehow, no matter how many times I read and hear the Nativity story, the more the pessimistic view of the presumed "host" is the one that tends to win out.

Several years ago, I wrote a post on the cynicism I still tend to feel when approached by people on the street - and how I should work harder to recognize the face of Christ in everyone. Depending on how you look at it, that same cynicism could have been found in the innkeeper - someone who looked with a very wary eye upon the pregnant teenage girl and the disheveled, tired man leading her on a donkey through the darkened streets of the town.

"May we have a room?" - "Do you have a dollar so that I can get something to eat?" In both instances, his answer - and, invariably, mine - are "I have nothing."

In his collection of essays entitled Secrets in the Dark, Frederick Buechner writes of the innkeeper this way:

"'Do you know what it is like to run an inn - to run a business, a family, to run anything in this world for that matter, even your own life? It is like being lost in a forest of a million tress,' said the Innkeeper, 'and each tree is a thing to be done. Is there fresh linen on all the beds? Did the children put on their coats before they went out? Has the letter been written, the book read? Is there money enough left in the bank? Today we have food in our bellies and clothes on our backs, but what can we do to make sure that we will have them still tomorrow? A million trees. A million things.

"'Until finally we have eyes for nothing else, and whatever we see turns into a thing. The sparrow lying in the dust at your feet - just a thing to be kicked out of the way, not the mystery of death. The calling of children outside your window - just a distraction, an irrelevance, not life, not the wildest miracle ofthem all. The whispering in the air that comes sudden and soft from nowhere - only the wind, the wind...'"

Examine the way you help others - not through an intermediary organization, or by sending a check to nameless, faceless person, but when confronted face to face by someone in need. Will you be a shepherd and do what you can by simply offering praises for the person for who they are? Will you be as the visitors from the East, who brought gifts of enormous value and gave them freely? Or will you be like the innkeeper, who says "I have nothing here; go over there?"