I was never a big fan of Christopher Hitchens’ take on religion.  A self-described antitheist, Hitchens took great pleasure in mocking God, religion, and people of faith.  While there are many valid critiques of religion out there, Hitchens’ attacks seemed designed to get a rise out of his readers rather than to add any new insight to the debate.

Even though I wasn’t a fan of Hitchens’ views on religion, I’ve become a fan of the man.  After he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2010, Hitchens began writing about his life refracted through this new lens.   The cancer did not let up, and he died at the end of last year.  But his words live on, particularly in a posthumously-published book entitled, Mortality, a collection of his Vanity Fair essays on the challenges of “living dyingly” with cancer.

I didn’t find a soft spot for this man simply because we have a stage IV cancer diagnosis in common.  I became a fan of his writing because I think it’s worthwhile to talk about cancer in ways that do more good and less harm. 

In his essay entitled “Miss Manners and the Big C,” Hitchens makes clear why more conversations on how to talk about cancer are necessary.  He points to the need for better manners by those whose insensitive comments about life with cancer leave their mark.

Interestingly, though, Hitchens’ lament about manners and cancer talk is not just about what those who don’t have cancer should say to those of us who do.  What’s most compelling about Hitchens’ call for better manners is that he turns a critical lens on himself.

In his soul-searching reflections on his new life, Hitchens clues us into his no-nonsense approach to talking about his condition.  At the same time, he admits to getting upset when others offer no-nonsense responses in return.  Hitchens concludes: “Cancer victimhood contains a permanent temptation to be self-centered and even solipsistic.”

Portraying those of us with cancer as potentially solipsistic is a risky move, even when it’s done by an honest-to-goodness cancer patient.  After all, doesn’t staying alive in the midst of the eye of cancer’s storm require self-centered behavior?

It’s true: living with cancer demands unparalleled focus on the self.  But Hitchens was brave enough to claim what is also the truth: that we cancer patients do not get a pass on the temptation to be overly focused on ourselves. 

Ironically, the reason I like Hitchens’ self-critical analysis so much is related to the reason I like religion so much, especially when it’s on its best behavior.  There’s a striking similarity between Hitchens’ assessment of his own behavior and religious insight into our flawed condition: both acknowledge that being turned in upon ourselves is a condition to which we are all subject.

Toward the end of the essay Hitchens calls for the establishment of groundrules for interaction between residents of “Tumortown” and citizens of “Wellville,” noting that the rules should impose duties on those of us with cancer as well as upon those who say too much or too little about our cancer condition.

Based on my own recent residency in Tumortown, I’ve realized that none of us knows exactly how to have cancer and none of us knows exactly how to talk about it.  Hitchens is right: more groundrules will help all of us.  Just as importantly, however, I propose we attempt a spirit of grace and forgiveness in conversations between those with cancer and those without, knowing that most of us are still in the midst of trying to get it right.

Even though Christopher Hitchens and I were far apart on the topic of religion, his penchant for talking about the tough stuff in the realm of cancer has helped me think more deeply about manners, grace, and the Big C.  Thanks, Hitch, wherever you are now.

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