The late Christopher Hitchens was a devastatingly brilliant man of letters who wrote widely, and fiercely, on myriad topics, becoming more widely known in recent years as one of the “New Atheists,” along with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, for his no-holds-barred attacks on religion, even claiming that religion “poisons everything.”
I recently picked up his last book, Mortality (Twelve, 2012), which was published posthumously after his death in 2011. I did this not because I wanted to read his thoughts on death – there aren’t many for a virulent atheist like him – but because he was a great writer. Hitchens was also a gifted speaker and debater, always ready to employ his voice in debate and lively conversation. This writing advice he offers combines these two things, voice and writing, as he so impressively did throughout his life:
“To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: ‘How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?’ That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition out loud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better into. If something is worth hearing or listening to it’s very probably worth reading. So, above all: Find your own voice” (50).
So whether you want to become a professional writer or simply write better and more effective e-mails, have you ever thought much about developing your “voice”? And how often do you have others read your work, not to mention reading it yourself?
Which do you think would most help you live a more purposeful and active life – focusing on the conditions, problems, and hopes of this world, or on heaven and hell, along with its realities of eternal joy and eternal torment? Sometimes you’ll hear the non-religious person say something like, if only Christians (and people of other faiths) focused more on the “here and now,” think of all that they could accomplish.
Yet countless examples of Christians show the reverse – the British lawmaker William Wilberforce comes to mind, who, even as he often meditated on eternal realities, passionately threw himself into myriad social causes, most famously the abolition of the slave trade, as I showed here. And though he didn’t have nearly the same kind of political impact on society, we also find a life of purpose and achievement in the great American pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards. From Owen Strachan’s brief and delightfully instructive Lover of God (Moody, 2010):
“Though it seems strange to say in this age, we should think about hell. We should not direct our minds only to pleasant things and passing diversions. We need to take the spiritual world seriously, and to meditate on it and think about it in the course of our daily lives.
“… He [Edwards] studied hell and often remembered what God had saved him from. He did not simply think about where he was going after death; he though about where, but for the grace of God, he would sure have gone. This contemplation fueled his passion for the Lord and drove him to live a serious and purposeful life. Because Edwards looked deeply into the reality of eternal torment, he was equipped to live a life of great spiritual intensity that pointed countless people away from hell and toward heaven” (107-108).
The great diplomat George Kennan, a major architect of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War, wrote the following reflection which impresses by how, though written more than 40 years ago and before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it remains about as true today as when it was first penned. He died in 2005, but one can almost see Kennan nodding, not surprised but disappointed, at the crisis in Ukraine and the general state of U.S.-Russia relations today. Also note the exacting requirements he lays out for American Foreign Service personnel serving in Russia. From his Memoirs: 1925-1945 (Little, Brown, 1967):
“The results of these investigations made me skeptical of any momentous future for Russian-American relations within our time. I did not despair of the possibility of a limited and unsensational measure of profitable cooperation between the two countries. But I was convinced that even this could be effectively realized only if our part in it was borne by persons who had the understanding and the qualifications necessary for the task: a gift for self-effacement, a decent educational background, an intellectual humility before the complexities of the Russian world, and, above all, an exceptional capacity for patience. Barring the enlistment of such persons on our part, I could see little future for Russian-American relations other than a long series of misunderstandings, disappointments, and recriminations on both sides.”
In Chasing the Flame (Penguin, 2008) Samantha Power, who is now U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, gives us the enthralling, inspiring, and maddening story of Sergio Vieira de Mello. An international crisis man sometimes described as a humanitarian James Bond, Vieira de Mello was a brilliant and deeply humane UN diplomat whose combination of passionate idealism with hard-nosed pragmatism was repeatedly frustrated by forces larger than himself, including the shortcomings of his own organization, the UN. His was a thrilling life prematurely ended in 2003 by a bomb in Baghdad while he served as the UN chief of mission in Iraq.
This diplomat, who shuttled from one conflict zone to another to defuse international crises, was not only a man of action, but also a man of deep thought, a man after philosophy. A brief statement from early in his career reveals that for Vieira de Mello, philosophy not only provided the internal grounding for the bold pursuit of justice to which he devoted his life, but was also at the core of what makes us human. In his words below, he also echoes the ancients’ (was it Plato? It was probably Plato) insight that just as those who are most gifted have the greatest potential for good, they also have the greatest potential for evil. We’re reminded that this applies to the realm of thought and ideas as well.
After receiving the highest grades in philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, Vieira de Mello wrote to his ex-girlfriend:
“‘But for what?’…if he had studied economics or marketing instead, ‘some American company would have assured me a “happy future” strewn with dollars.’ He would never sell out, he told her, and ‘just short of dying of hunger,’ he would ‘never abandon philosophy.’ The philosopher, he wrote, could become either ‘the most just man’ or the ‘the most radical bandit.’ Either way, he insisted, ‘to do philosophy is to have it in your blood and to do what very few will do – to both be a man and to think everywhere and always.’” (21)
Lincoln not only carried the enormous burden of leading the Union through the Civil War, he carried the personal burden of clinical depression. He experienced his first severe episode in his 20s, and from then suffered through a “lifetime of depression.”
Many people don’t know this about Lincoln, whose strength of character and ability to cope with adversity commanded the respect of his contemporaries and continues to capture the attention of historical observers. In Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Mariner, 2006), Joshua Wolf Shenk shows us Lincoln’s experience of depression and argues that his response to this suffering was one of the roots of his greatness. (This book was one of my top reads of 2013, which you can see here.)
Read this and see how it might challenge your view of terms such as “mental illness,” “success” and “healthy”:
“Can we say that Lincoln was ‘mentally ill’? Without question, he meets the U.S. surgeon general’s definition of mental illness, since he experienced ‘alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior’ that were associated with ‘distress and/or impaired functioning.’ Yet Lincoln also meets the surgeon general’s criteria for mental health: ‘the successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive facilities, fulfilling relationships with other people, and the ability to adapt to change and cope with adversity.’ By this standard, few historical figures led such a healthy life” (25).
Indeed. Few historical figures led such a healthy life.
Happy birthday, Mr. President.
Before David the shepherd boy became David King of Israel, he was ruthlessly persecuted by King Saul, who sought to kill the “anointed one” who would take his throne. Yet despite this enmity, David enjoyed an intimate friendship with Jonathan, the son of Saul. Jonathan was exceedingly kind to David during this difficult period, and, knowing that David would ascend to the throne, he made him promise to be kind to his descendants.
In David: Man of Prayer, Man of War (Banner of Truth, 2011), Walter Chantry explains what would normally have happened to one of Saul’s descendants once someone like David came to power: “It was common in the Middle East for a newly-crowned ruler to exterminate the males of the former ruler’s household. Any prominence of one who survived this carnage would give rise to whispers that he was a rival for the throne. Then ordinary citizens might kill him to gain special favor with the present king.”
But David remembered the promise he made to his beloved friend Jonathan, and he would fulfill this promise to one of Jonathan’s sons, who was also the grandson of the man who turned him into an outlaw and sought to kill him. This person was Mephibosheth, who was dropped by his nurse at at young age, leaving him lame and dependent on others’ kindness for the rest of his life.
Chantry describes David’s proactive kindness: “David was not content to wait until someone from the household of Saul appealed to him for aid. He searched out the relatives of Jonathan” for someone to show kindness to (187).
Now watch this:
When Mephibosheth appeared before David, anxious and uncertain before the new King, he was met with gentle words and given gifts, the large estate formerly held by King Saul, and a position of honor in the King’s court. For the rest of his days he would be fed at the King’s table and all would know that he “enjoyed the special favor of David” (189).
Chantry then turns to the reader:
“Do you show kindness to others as God has showered undeserved blessings on you? Too many say, ‘I’m not aware of those who have needs’! But we must search out opportunities to do good…There are widows, the infirm, and prisoners in great need of attention in their sufferings” (188).
I was moved and inspired by this example, and I couldn’t agree with Chantry’s point more. We shouldn’t wait for the needy to come knocking at our door to be kind and generous. Rather, just as we’ve been shown extravagant grace and kindness, we too should look for opportunities to show mercy and kindness. If we do, we won’t be disappointed: they are all around us.
In writing about the power of suffering to reveal someone’s true character, St. Augustine gave us this great metaphor: “Stir a cesspit, and a foul stench arises; stir a perfume, and a delightful fragrance ascends.” (I featured this quote as part of a recent post.)
So we might say that in his hour of greatest suffering – when for two months several doctors tried to save his life and remove the bullet fired by his murderer – President James Garfield gave forth a truly “delightful fragrance,” giving us an example of patience, grace, and charity in suffering that can only be found in the best of persons.
This is taken from the excellent Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (Anchor, 2012) by Candice Millard:
“Despite the fact that his health, his work, and quite possibly his life had been suddenly and senselessly taken from him, he remained unfailingly cheerful and kind, day after day.” His doctor said that throughout his illness, he never approached Garfield “without meeting an extended hand, and an expression of thankful recognition of the efforts being made for his comfort and recovery.”
“While Garfield’s body had begun to fail him, his courtesy never did, nor his sense of humor…[he] now used humor to put those around him at ease” (208).
“Garfield…made every effort to assure those around him that he was not only well but content…He endured without complaint excruciating pain and daily humiliations,” and and attendant said that he “rarely spoke of his condition and seldom expressed a want” (223).