Saying Goodbye to Anthony Bourdain, and the ‘Bourdain Soul’

anthony-bourdain mug

If you don’t know who Anthony Bourdain is it’s probably because you hate traveling and good food. He was THE perennial all-star travel and food critic; he held the job that I, and anyone with any sense of sense, dreamed of having.

And besides the actual Anthony Bourdain – the witty, sarcastic, crass storyteller, chef extraordinaire – I think many fans have a place in their souls which could be called the ‘Bourdain soul’; that special place in the psyche lost in dreams of endless travel and culinary luxury. This dream would remain pure fantasy if it were not for a select few people, like Anthony Bourdain, who actually lived the dream.

Now, I’m not totally foolish. I know from the dozens of celebrity suicides in the past that the luxurious life does not guarantee a paradise of soul; I know from endless readings of my spiritual heroes of the faith – the saints, martyrs and ascetics – that luxury is actually the last place one will find paradise of soul; I know from my studies and clinical experience in mental health that luxurious living has nothing to do with eliminating anxiety and depression, but can often amplify them; etcetera.

But Bourdain, dammit, Bourdain made me hold on to that last, infinitesimally small portion of my soul that still believed the dream. His passing today by suicide marks the passing of my own Bourdain soul, the final burying of the fantasy once and for all.

joking bourdainHe had it all. He fought back from a life of drug abuse in his youth to become a world renown chef and accomplished author; landed an unbelievably successful travel show which kept him globetrotting for decades to every beautiful destination on the planet; his palate was filled daily with the finest food and drink ever produced; he became an avid jiu jitsu practitioner in his 50’s and claimed that he was living in the best physical condition of his life; he had wealth; he had fame; and… and apparently it wasn’t enough.

What was missing?

Don’t most of us have this nagging question every time we are shocked by another celebrity suicide? Yes, but this was different. We all sort of suspect that most celebrities live in a private, hellish, inner prison, though their outward life tells a different story, but not Bourdain. And not because he was without angst. It was precisely because of his angst and his ability to express it that made him seem less likely than others to end his life. Those who always have it together, those are the ones you watch out for.

Answering the “What was missing?” question is usually an act of presumptive foolishness. Only Bourdain knew what was missing for him. But it doesn’t stop me from wondering. Was it simply that he, like many before him, had hit the plateau of perceived success in life and in the course of realizing his dream realized it was just a dream? What if the plateau was a daily reminder that he was missing what he was really after? What if the fine food and wine were daily reminders that the belly is never satisfied? What if he had a sudden loss-of-home feeling every time he saw his own face in the mirror? On TV?

These are common thoughts I have every time a celebrity takes his or her own life, but… not this guy, the guy whose job was so dreamy that I would clean all the toilets in New York with my tongue to have. Not him. What could possibly be missing? How can you kill yourself – in Strasbourg, France! Not exactly the most depressing place ever.

Whatever the reason, Bourdain’s story has many lessons. For me, I am reminded that life is not only short, precious, and unpredictable, but that people are sad – often those you least expect. Sadness is okay, it’s part of being human, but the sort of sadness that can be a matter of life and death can go unnoticed by those closest to us since it is often (and as a clinician I’m tempted to say always) a matter of inner desperation, not a matter of external lack. If external goodies – pretty stuff, good tasting stuff, adventurous stuff, and lots of it – ever had the power to give meaning to life, to rescue one from suicide, then surely it would’ve saved Bourdain. Goodies are powerless to add meaning to life, and ultimately rob us of true happiness. As Viktor Frankl once said, “People do not want to be happy. They want a reason to be happy.” Bourdain reminds me to always remain conscious of my “reason” to be happy, and to help others remember theirs.

Thanks for reading!

8 thoughts on “Saying Goodbye to Anthony Bourdain, and the ‘Bourdain Soul’

  1. Generally, the suicidal mindsets of men and women are quite different from each other. The female suicidal mindset is driven by emotion, the male suicidal mindset is driven by a kind of realisation and irrefutable reason.

  2. Some conjectures and thoughts from a mourning admirer of Bourdain, who is also a passionate Christian.

    1) Bourdain was FAR far more than just a gourmand or the standard fare celebrity spoilt by luxuries. In fact focusing on the luxe gourmande, the globetrotting lifestyle, the success and celebrity and what others seem to envy about him is… i would dare to say… miss the point or to underestimate him and what he tried to explore and to offer his audiences. Yes, he was sort of numbed or fleetingly distracted by these material things and shocks/adrenaline fixes from new slices of cultures and exotic experiences, but I felt that all the food and the exotic travels was just the wall paper. I don’t think he was particularly *that* into the food as he had to act for TV. I think he was possibly bored with that. ((but maybe I am just using my born-again perspective – I was the pickiest, most addicted foodie ever – then I met Jesus and that part of me just faded away… it got boring in comparison to what God gives me…) Anyway back to the topic.

    Bourdain was so transparent about his angst and loneliness, particularly when he was staying in fancy villas by himself. He was probably more concerned with this than with whether or not something he had to eat on TV really tasted that good.

    What was really at the front and center in the show Parts Unknown was the *human condition*. It wasn’t really about the food. It was about the people. He was empathetic curious and interested about cultures and people and socio-political conditions, about tyrannies and conflicts and the aftermaths thereof. About inequalities, slavery, emancipation, communities, friendships, blood and tear histories. About fiercely preserved traditions and revolutionary events. He interviewed/spent time with commoners. Soldiers and martyrs. Elites. Artists. Thinkers. Doubters. Mothers. Grandmas… list goes on. He went notches deeper and wider than other travel food shows offering ONLY luxury views and food porn. His shows were quests for something MUCH deeper. He waded into Iran, Syria, Cambodia, post-Soviet whatchamacallit states. Weaverville. He was interested in and curious about so much more but kept getting stuffed with what he already had too much of – luxury and local comfort food and snapshots of exotic culture (in reality, travel and food do not represent EVERYTHING that a culture has to offer!) sometimes denying the spiritual richness behind what makes these things interesting. Even in the most politically contested, “exciting” countries – the intensity of the human condition there, his experiences and explorations still stopped short of filling his hole because, he kept avoiding spirituality (and God) despite he was obviously an utterly soulful person and in tune with all of these human conditions which are ultimately expressions only possibly by all three realms (spirit soul body) integrated – good and bad. I mean what is the cry for freedom?? For human excellence?
    for Love? What is the cry for joy and meaning and connection? These are not things to be explained by the material or the natural.

    i would leap to say that he was sooooo *obviously looking for God.* or at least something as big and deep and meaningful as God, to fill his holes. But he continues to fail to find it despite all the most intense experiences he experienced all over the globe. He continues to be disappointed deep down from the answers and responses of everyone he asked questions of. He was a very soulful, possibly even spiritual person, who was blind to that fact, or flat out denied it. He hid behind the identity of a self-proclaimed materialist/naturalist/atheist/post-modernist – the “cool smart lucky tasteful well-read thoughtful guy” facade. These are people who rule the world right now. Our typical “targets to evangelize/engage in apologetics.” To understand Bourdain is to understand the masses, at least the influential non-religious masses, of our current society.

    2) He seemed to deny God’s existence and repeatedly expressed open skepticism and even contempt of Christianity in particular (while being surface respectful to all traditions, pagan religions, and other spiritual practices). Most friendly to local traditions and superstitions as these were the least threatening.

    3) ALL of the Christians he encounters – even his friends and interviewees and hosts – fed *terrible* misconceptions and caricatures about Christianity and further ingrained if not poured concrete over his disdain, misgivings and misunderstanding to what Christianity really is, pushes him further away from God, even though this might actually be the answer he had been looking for all along.

    The conflict between what he is truly craving versus what he rejects (see point 2 and 3) is likely one of the stress points throughout his life.

    4) I’m thinking of what apologetics, GOOD apologetics, Socratic, casual, but incisive and long-resounding questions – would have done for Bourdain. If he had an episode with Ravi Zacharias, John Lennox, Tim Keller, or Michael Ramsden – he would have gotten his underlying assumptions and conflicting worldviews challenged and a pebble in his shoe – a really good pebble. Rather than just talking to another tradition-busting entrepreneur, or a better chef than himself, or a promiser of delightful flavors, or another victim who got back onto their feet (the best of inspiring stories the secular world has to offer) – how about talking to a passionate and mature Christian rich with the wisdom, humor, eye-opening, countercultural and heavenly truth of Christ?? How about an episode in India with Ravi Zacharias and a Hindu Brahmin priest discussing philosophy, truth, and salvation over maybe a vegetarian religious festival food table?
    An episode in Crete where he talks to Michael Ramsden in a sidewalk eatery. An episode in Oxford with John Lennox, discussing whys and whats from a different perspective and the what’s ups with young Oxfordians and any legacy of C.S. Lewis???

    Maybe with the right people in his path, there may have been planted a glimmer of hope that his questions actually DO have, ultimately satisfying and superior answers – ones that he hasn’t seen nor heard even in his travels all over the world in the most craziest corners of earth.

    I think that a question that leaves a pebble in his traveling shoe would have woken him up and educated him and answered his questions much better than mind numbing doses of culture encapsulated in exotic foods.

    Bourdain really wanted that stuff behind the food, but I don’t think he found what he was looking for, but was confident that he tried his best and went as far as he could go. He thought he came to the end of the world, bought into the lie that what his heart of hearts craved did not exist, and gave up.

    I think he was looking for God all along. But he didn’t believe God existed.

    That would drive anyone to suicide – even in the most luxury of settings.

    Thanks for reading my ramblings. I am still mourning but I am glad I can share my thoughts here. Thank you!

    • Rosa, wow! What an insightful and well written reply. Loved it and agree wholeheartedly. Thank you for taking the time and care to share this.

  3. And I am not saying he wouldn’t still be depressed and suicidal if he talked to someone who would ask him the right questions – but he would have at least ONE PEBBLE IN HIS SHOE!

  4. Hi Eric, thanks for your approval! Sorry about the reblog comment just above… feel free to delete and clean up these two comments… I’ve already taken up enough page space here!

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