Hard Questions on Anthony Bourdain Day
Updated: Jul 24, 2019
June 25th was Anthony Bourdain Day, in celebration of his birth 63 years ago. I didn’t know Bourdain personally, but I loved Kitchen Confidential when I read it years ago, and my wife gave me one of his cookbooks for my birthday a couple years back. I was moved by his introduction, which spoke with such honesty about becoming a father at age fifty, and all the adjustments that brought to his life. I was especially touched by the deep love he expressed for his then-eight-year-old daughter. After his death, the news cycle inevitably returned to endless Trump mania, but this week there are tributes and editorials in the papers once again celebrating his life and legacy. I am still shaken by his death, and deeply ambivalent about it too. Because the same man who wrote in 2016, “Fatherhood has been an enormous relief, as I am now genetically, instinctually compelled to care more about someone other than myself,” decided to hang himself in a hotel room two years later. It would be odd not to be disturbed by that, especially as a parent of still-young children myself. And while I would like to categorically promise I will never kill myself, because I too cannot imagine loving anyone more than my kids, Bourdain’s death makes the absolutes seem . . . well, less absolute.
Most of us have a hard-wired sense of self-preservation—the cliff-edge makes our heart race, after all—but we also generally believe that making meaning out of our lives is part of self-preservation too, and if we can’t make meaning, then there is probably something very wrong with us. We label it depression or mental illness or despair. The very act of giving such darkness a name somehow lessens its terror—at least for those of us not experiencing it. Because let’s face it: that degree of pain and isolation is not something any of us want to contemplate too intensely, either for ourselves or for those we love. Better to trust and believe that all suicides are preventable if only the right medication, communication, and treatments can be found. And maybe that’s true. As a teacher and a father, I desperately want to believe it’s true. I have students who have attempted suicide—none successfully as of yet, thank god, after sixteen years of teaching, which seems remarkably lucky—and adolescent suicide is especially heartbreaking because teenagers do not yet know the full scope of life and what it has to offer. Not so for Anthony Bourdain. He knew life, was willing, at least in his public persona, to engage it far more fully than most people. In fact, this was his persona: eating up life, both literally and figuratively through travel, adventure, and a deep hunger to know other cultures and lives through the medium of food. His unflinching openness was what drew me to him, and based on the many tributes, those lucky enough to know him personally.
Bourdain seemed to have figured life out. He was authentic, curious, generous, altruistic, and he had a marvelous sense of humor and perspective on the world. Not to mention things most of us long for in one way or another and never achieve, such as wealth, fame, and prestige. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but in Bourdain’s case it would seem that the examined life was not worth living. This is hard for me to accept, and makes the diagnosis of depression or mental illness all the more reassuring. Yet his death also feels like a cautionary tale, because while many of us may mercifully never face the degree of darkness that Bourdain grappled with that night in his hotel room, making and sustaining meaning in our lives is hard work, and not at all guaranteed. What is my purpose? What brings me joy and pleasure? Why does what brought me connection yesterday not bring me any today?Certainly if we accept only the socially acceptable versions of a meaningful life then we run a higher risk of existential despair, especially if the external rewards come at the expense of our true feelings, our relationships, our desire to be our authentic selves. In a world addicted to noise and distraction, how easy it is to refuse the hard and private and uncertain work of truly knowing ourselves. At least for me, Bourdain’s remarkable life and suicide begs the tremulous question: can we successfully stave off the darkness by paying careful attention to what actually gives our life purpose, and being prepared for those answers to change over time? Or sometimes . . . sometimes is there simply nothing to be done? Because if Anthony Bourdain—a man with such vast reservoirs of intelligence, humor, curiosity, and compassion—can end his own life in a hotel bathroom halfway round the world, then doesn’t that mean that none of us are safe?