Christopher Hitchens just died. Part of me wants to say good riddance, because he was a stubborn, argumentative, frequently cruel and often petty man. But another part of me is really sad, because he was a man of long thoughts in a world of shorter and shorter ones, and that should be celebrated.
So what do I mean by long thoughts?
In a roundabout way, a “long thought” to me, is an extended, deep engagement with a topic. One that happens over time, that morphs and accrues, that reckons with the vastness of any particular subject. I haven’t been around long enough to have any of these, though I think I’m starting to have my own “long thought” about the brain/mind (but that’s another story.)
I guess this all sounds a little opaque, but after thinking about something for long enough, you start to hone, understand, and remember, in a way you don’t—and can’t—after just a moment thinking about it.
And Christopher Hitchens was a man who devoted his life to these long, deep engagements with weighty topics. He cultivated an attention to the particulars of a subject, put his spin on them, and was unafraid to use that perspective to provoke people into thinking more. I might not agree with his thoughts on religion, but his arguments confronted me with my own ignorance, and drove me to understand and support my views. I think a lot of people have him to thank for that.
I really don’t want to take this on a tangent, but thinking about Hitchens and this idea of short vs. long thoughts had me pretty jazzed this morning while I was walking to the subway. In a weird way, I’ve been trying to articulate this idea for a few months, and reflecting on his death got me thinking about it in a different way. So thanks again, Hitch.
It started when I was sitting to watch a TED talk, and after 2 minutes of watching, felt this a restless bubbling on the edge of my awareness. An itch I needed to scratch. I felt it again when I had slumped down on the couch with a new book, but felt like putting it down after 5 pages. Then again in conversation with a friend. I wanted to move on. I wasn’t bored, exactly, but unsettled in some way. Eventually, I caught myself on youtube, 30 seconds into a video, already trawling the related videos for more to put in my queue. I also caught myself skimming a short essay in Slate, eager to check out the next one. I was bouncing around, having very, very short thoughts, tracing the surface of topics based on titles, not content.
I realized that I was churning through all kinds of material, feeling like I was learning or experiencing something, then coming to the end without any substantive memories, ideas or knowledge. I was chasing the satisfying “pop” of instant access, but didn’t stick around for the fizz of learning.
I have no idea whether I can abstract this to a statement on general online behavior. I don’t have the data to support that, but I have a suspicion it might be something a lot of people are subconsciously training to do. They’re learning to flit, and bounce, and cultivate ten things in parallel, rather than one at a time, and deeply. They’re covering broad swathes of territory, like a surveyor in a helicopter, rather than getting that mud-in-the-treads pleasure of being on the ground, ducking branches, taking in micro-level detail. It takes a lot longer to cover a mile on foot, than in the air.
There’s a place for the kind of cool, savvy, web-surfing I’m talking about, but I wonder what it means for our ability to really learn things in a way that promotes flexibility, especially when it comes to big questions of self and society. People are chattering about the “sound-biting” of public discourse, and it seems to me that my thoughts are becoming more and more like soundbites themselves. It is my own fault. I need to make room to open up, and suspend judgment. To engage, reckon with, and research.
Hitchens might have been a bit of a bastard. I might disagree the bulk of his opinions. But if anything, he modeled a life of long thoughts. I want to do that. I want to know the surface, and know what’s beneath it. The end result is a brimming world, a world brimming with debate, opinions, and questions. To miss that would be sad, I think. I’m not saying that I’ll try to stay offline more or anything, but I think I’ll be working on focusing more, and listening harder. Whether it’s online, in conversation, or reading a book. Hopefully. We’ll see. Goodbye Hitch.