The “Hitch-22” Paradox

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.


About Tom Cummings

A life-long news and current events junkie, an occasional political activist and volunteer, and for the past five years a practitioner of daily meditation and a student of Buddhist philosophy, I write this blog to explore what I see as the inherent tensions and contradictions between practicing mindfulness - so rooted in the Buddhist virtues of compassion, generosity, and non-attachment to self - and being an engaged citizen in today's world - where the very opposite traits are all too often the ones that prevail.
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2 Responses to The “Hitch-22” Paradox

  1. Hi Tom

    As I read your piece, I firstly took the ‘two sets of books’ literally! I run a 3×4 inch notebook that I carry around with me all the time while I have a 9×7 inch notebook for more laboriously ‘constructed’ writings! My mind just clicked into this state of affairs! There is a sort of pendulum effect takes place between modes of being in relation to the two notebooks. They are ‘a set of books’ that I would not do without!

    I cannot but link your account to the concept of Multiple-I’s that I flog interminably! While there must be some core or the other, we are never the same person two seconds running – I’ve just flipped from Typing-I to Looking-out-the-window-I’ to Thinking-what-I’m-going-to-do-next-I in the space of half a minute – and so on (back in Typing-I but with Wondering-where-to-go-next-with-this-I jumping up and down…)

    Mindfulness, for me, is the ability to step outside this dance of ‘I’s and move into what I thnk I call Meta-I – still an ‘I’ because it’s part of who ‘I’ imagine ‘I’ am but one that’s taken itself off to a remote uninhabited planet without identifications of any kind. I know that it is possible to do this in a very simple simulation just by walking from a bit of paper on the floor labelled ‘Typing-I’ for example over to the other side of the room where there’s a bit of paper labelled ‘Planet-X’ and, standing on it, looking back at the remote dance of ‘I’s.

    I imagine that, whilst he won’t perhaps have described or done it thus, Hitchens’ ‘capacity for tolerating huge amounts of ambiguity and paradox’ will have had to involve some mental practice akin to this. Presumably the resolution of the productive oppositions in his life was the journalistic work.

    Thanks for the interesting post Tom!


    Are you threatenedby the hurricano?


  2. Hi Colin,
    As I read your comments and reply back to you, the winds of Hurricane Sandy are blowing outside my den window, shaking the trees and swaying the electric wires around our house. All public transit is shut down, most shops and businesses are closing, and my wife and I await the predicted 2-3 days of rain with the likely power outage and basement flooding that will accompany Sandy’s unwelcome visit to New York and the surrounding region.
    But we are fortunate to be safely at home and with enough provisions to last out the event. Not all our neighbors are so fortunate – many live near the shoreline and have been forced to evacuate their residences in anticipation of an 11-foot rise in the tide waters.
    I plan to spend at least some of my time as an involuntary shut-in over the next few days in meditation, with a particular focus on the Buddhist precept of being with things as they are, rather than as one would have them be! It will be an opportunity, as well as a challenge, to keep myself in “Meta-I” as much as possible until the storm has passed and its consequences have been repaired.


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