Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cheating Death

How we each deal with adversity and the grim realities of what it means to be human says so much about who we are as individuals. Take the case of two public figures who revealed this summer that they are both "battling," as they say, cancer: noted author and journalist Christopher Hitchens and actor Michael Douglas, both in their sixties, who suffer from similar afflictions. 

Douglas, the offspring of Hollywood royalty, grew up in privilege that surely boosted his rise up the ladder of success, starting with a prominent role on TV's The Streets of San Francisco in the 1970s. Now suffering from advanced stage 4 throat cancer, he trumpets "I'll beat this!" in 30-point type from the cover of People magazine. Hitchens, on the other hand, an avowed anti-theist who's the product of a hardscrabble English military upbringing, continues to write eloquent, realistic observations about facing the death that his metastic esophageal cancer, which has spread to his lungs and lymph nodes, seems to indicate is inescapable.

Douglas' upbeat outlook strikes me as narcissistic and foolish, a product of what writer Barbara Ehrenreich brands "bright-sided positive thinking." Having received a cancer diagnosis herself, she defied the self-help thinking and infantilized therapy that steers disease management and derails a patient's ability to come to terms with terminal illness. It's in keeping with the self-image of a celebrity like Douglas, who has been in the public eye since birth, to think that he can overcome what is essentially a death sentence, and consistent with the outlook of the contemporary medical industry to let terminally ill people believe that they can continuously bang their heads against the bulkhead of mortality and somehow break through. There's also a tang of hypocrisy around Douglas' fervency. Douglas is a lifelong smoker, party hound, and self-admitted compulsive sex addict who just this year used his celebrity status to mitigate the sentencing of his adult son for dealing methamphetamine. Google "Catherine Zeta Jones smoking" and you'll come across a gallery of images showing the actor's wife smoking cigarets in the advanced stages of pregnancy.

Hitchens, whose body of work has been both provocative and prodigious, makes no qualms about his own lifelong abuses of the flesh, and that's just one more layer of introspection he adds to his pragmatism about his illness. Yes, the writer is currently enduring the requisite rounds of chemo for the sake of his wife and children, but he's also contemplating the abyss with the same eloquence and realism that he's used to broach such topics as Islamic radicalism, Mother Teresa's messianic adulation, and waterboarding. In the current issue of Vanity Fair, he even evaluates online postings from supposed Christians who say his cancer is God's retribution for the blaspheming he conducted with his now afflicted throat. 

Death will always be an inevitable outcome for every living being. It amazes me that at this stage of human development so many of us still cling to the childish fantasies that keep us from making the grand exit with a degree of dignity that reflects our development and learnings as a species.  

No comments:

Post a Comment