I just recently finished reading Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens’s account of his forty-plus event-filled years in the public eye as a journalist, author, public speaker, and frequent television news-show guest – a multi-faceted career that was cut tragically short by his death from esophageal cancer in December 2011 at the age of 62.
One of the most striking self-observations Hitchens shares in his memoir concerns a recurring theme that first emerged during his student days at Cambridge, and subsequently wove its way through the entire course of his life. He describes this theme as the need to “keep two separate sets of books” in taking stock of his life at any given point.
He first notices this duality in his nature when he becomes an active, almost daily, participant in the various student protests that were taking place all across the Cambridge campus in the late 1960s. He would spend long afternoons marching on behalf of the world’s poor and downtrodden, and immediately afterwards he would hurry back to his comfortable chambers to don tie and jacket for long evenings enjoying extravagant dinners, fine wine, and expensive cigars with his wealthy, privileged classmates.
In these two diametrically opposed environments, he realized, he was equally at home.
What I find so remarkable is that Hitchens came to such a profoundly mature understanding of the paradox that was manifesting in these contradictory behaviors while still at a relatively immature stage of his life. Even more remarkable, he sought neither to deny the paradox nor to explain it away. On the contrary, he continued to notice – and comment upon – its familiar and ever-more puzzling presence as he progressed through each succeeding stage of his eventful adult life.
And by the time he wrote his memoir, he had elevated this paradox into the catchy phrase “Hitch-22”, blending the nickname Hitch by which he was known to his friends with the 22 from Jospeh Heller’s classic novel Catch-22, thereby signifying that the story of his life would revolve around a collision of irreconcilable conditions much like those that gave Heller’s story its title.
While I doubt that Hitchens had any personal inclination toward mindfulness habits or meditation practice – he repeatedly describes himself as a driven and impatient individual, and the sheer volume of his journalistic output bears witness to such traits – nonetheless I believe that his capacity for tolerating huge amounts of ambiguity and paradox in his life is a useful object of study for those of us who are so inclined.
For is it not the case that the sustained effort of self-observation inherent in any practice of mindful meditation almost always results in the awareness of our own internal contradictions? Is it at all possible to inquire into the unceasing stream of consciousness forever flowing through our minds, and not to realize what a mass of conflicting impulses we each contain within ourselves?
Owning up to this state of affairs, as Hitchens did at so early a point in his life, is a necessary step in coming to an honest accounting of the person we truly are.
Where I would differ with him is in his self-professed need for “keeping two separate sets of books” to account for his those supposedly contradictory impulses. I would argue – and I believe after reading his memoir that Hitchens relished few things more than a good argument – that it is much more useful to hold all the paradoxes of our life in one single book.
At different times and in differing circumstances, we may find ourselves either selfish or generous, energetic or lazy, witty or dull, wise or confounded, and so on. One of the most valuable outcomes of sustained self-observation is the insight that none of these fleeting attributes is the actual self. When we free ourselves from identifying with either one or the other, depending on the particular circumstance, we free ourselves of the need for two sets of books.
Once we stop labeling ourself as a selfish person in some situations but a generous person in others, we can begin to recognize ourself as a person who is both capable of generosity toward others and desirous of satisfying our own personal needs.
One set of books.
And one straightforward way of engaging mindfully with the world, as we each face our own uniquely personal version of the “Hitch-22” paradox.