De Omnibus Dubitandum
I’ve just finished a book(let) by my latest personal hero, Christopher Hitchens. Not that I have that many personal heroes. I would say the Hitch is only number three. I’ll come back to his inspiring little book a few paragraphs further, but first I want to return for a bit to my heroes. When I started thinking about the essence of their meaning to me, I discovered a common thread.
Bruce Lee became my first hero — when I was around eleven years old. The martial arts master made a lasting impact on my life and thinking. Long before the recent popularity of his catchy saying — be like water, my friend — I was watching and studying his every move and — of course — trying to emulate them.
What stuck with me throughout all these years, is two things. First, the simplicity and agility that Lee advocated through his “be like water” trope, and second, the empiricism of his way of fighting. He made sure he kept it clean and simple, no schmuck of any kind — straight lines, short movements, no fuss — because he wanted his way to work under real-life circumstances.
This meant that he had to fight more than physical fights — he was actually quite the rebel in the martial arts world. He openly questioned the validity of practicing forms, or katas. He saw that the forms held little relation with real-life fights, so he saw no need for them in his methods. Nowadays this seems quite obvious to most martial artists but in the 1960s this was a revolutionary idea.
What I both admire and aspire, is the fact that this young Chinese-American gadfly had the bravado to go against the mainstream of the martial arts world by doubting the traditional ways, and thereby establishing what is now common knowledge in the ring, on the mat, and in the octagon — as well as on the street and even on the battlefield.
My second personal hero is Prince. His music mesmerized me from when I was about twelve, thirteen years old. I think many of you know how different Prince was — in his music, his style, but also, his thoughts about the music business. He was not afraid to be the first to act out against the almighty music industry to claim his rights as a creative artist. In his style he broke through traditional racial barriers, in his music he broke through traditional artistic barriers, and with the handling of his recordings he broke through traditional business barriers.
The thing about Prince I most admire is the fact that he came from a poor black background in the lily-white state of Minnesota, made it to stardom by renewing every aspect he touched, all the while choosing to keep his dignity over acquiring more wealth. His creative freedom, the freedom to think, write, and sing whatever he wanted was of the utmost importance to him. I can only hope to be as brave if my own freedom is encroached upon.
My third and latest personal hero is Christopher Hitchens, an English-American writer, and, for lack of a better word, “contrarian”. The title of Hitchens’ book I just finished is “Letters to a young contrarian”, taking after the real letters to a young poet that German poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote. In his booklet, Hitchens writes to an imaginary young contrarian in order to provide some much needed moral support for the youngling to continue to doubt and question everything and make a point of that. To not be held back by the forces of tradition, bias, and superstition.
The letters are filled with quotes to live by. One of them the title of this piece, de omnibus dubitandum, meaning, everything must be doubted. The reason why these words ring so true to me — especially in these coronavirus days — is that in this era of information overload it is all the more important to sift the baloney from the proven facts. There are so many people actively spewing information out into the world, but — knowingly or not — a lot of that is either fake news or not proven to be correct in any way.
Hitchens warns us not to be nihilistic — not to be against everything just for the sake of it. The difference with being contrarian is subtle for the outsider but substantial for you.
Take for instance the coronavirus upheaval. It’s easy to blame governments for doing too little too late or to crucify them for incursions on our freedoms, but it is another thing to question whether loosening the restrictions right now is wise, and expressing doubt about the guarantees of privacy when it comes to corona apps on your mobile phone.
Aside from today’s viral concerns, in my job as an agile coach, I take heart in the consoling yet inciting words of Hitchens. Whenever I’m at work in an organization, I keep reminding myself to doubt everything. Is it true what they say about not being able to change this or that? Is it true that that person is always obstructing improvements? Is the person considered to be most knowledgeable truly as wise? As a coach, I have to ask these questions out loud and not worry too much about the consequences, or nothing will change.
The Hitch — as Christopher is affectionately called by his admirers — puts a lot of effort into assuring the young contrarian (or rather us, the readers) to take solace in the fact that going against the grain inevitably means being rather alone with your opinion.
I smile when I read on the last page this quote from Hungarian dissident George Konrad: “Have a lived life instead of a career.”