On Chefs, Suicide, and Connection

(I wrote this a while ago with the thought of getting it published somewhere. That didn’t happen so here it is.)

Following news of the suicide of another high-profile figure, we have been flooded with stories related to suicide, depression, and mental health. Questions of why this happened, how it could be prevented, and what we should do next abound. These reactions are expected and necessary, but I find myself reaching for connection in the midst of my grief-induced loneliness.

I never met Bourdain personally. But I, like many others, was introduced to him through his work. He stood out, often referred to as the “bad boy” of celebrity chefs due to his brash, straight-talking persona. Yet it didn’t take too much effort to see behind the act. His shows and writing were filled with thoughtful reflection, insight, and personal accountability. He spoke the truth of what he saw even when that could have ended his career. But more importantly, he revealed his shortcomings and his errors, and allowed himself to be changed by what he learned. A raw curiosity, a desire to learn from mistakes, and putting himself out there for all to see is what drew me to him. Bourdain could do what many seasoned counselors can’t, and he inspired me to regularly step into that which I did not know.

As I look at the tributes and comments many have made, I can see how many people from all over the world are affected by this loss. Those who were closest to him request privacy, as they rightly should. Friends and acquaintances share stories with sadness tugging at their throats. But there are many people with stories like mine – people who never met him directly, never shared a drink or a handshake, and yet we feel as hollowed out by this experience as if we had lost our closest friend.

Is it so strange, though, to think we could be deeply affected by the presence of someone we did not physically meet? Is this feeling just the surface reaction to the shock of suicide, or is there something more to this? But perhaps the question to ask instead is, why shouldn’t we be affected by an inexplicable loss of someone who influenced our lives?

I wonder if our tendency to dismiss the grief associated with the loss of a public figure is rooted in a cultural stance driven by rugged individualism, the spirit that says one person can withstand anything. And yet, we easily forget that the one cannot stand without the many. While we look at our personal successes and failures, we tend to ignore the many people who came before us, those we needed to become who we are today. We can see the people we know directly, but we lose sight of those whose influence worked in the background, the many people we may have never met who helped shape our understanding of ourselves. Thus, when we lose someone who has shown us something about who we could be, of course it is devastating because we are left wondering who is left. But in a society that prizes the individual above all else, admitting our need for others gets redefined as a weakness instead of a strength.

Our social-media interaction style gives us the illusion that we are together, a mere Instagram away from the next person. The exposure someone like Bourdain gets means we have more access to the figures who influence us. It becomes possible to find people all over the world giving us a sense that we are not alone. Yet it also makes the divide greater because our posts, tweets, and shares are one-dimensional snapchats of ourselves, preventing us from engaging in the risk of vulnerability that is also required to be known and to know others. I am left knowing that Bourdain made an impact on my life, but our relationship will always be one-sided. His death confirms that there will never be a chance for me to know more.

Here we come to the tragedy of suicide, the act where only those who have done it truly understand it. We who remain can only get so close to making sense of it and usually have to settle with angry acceptance. We want to be able to prevent it, yet it is the fact that it has already happened that reveals our powerlessness.

I will make no claim regarding why Anthony Bourdain ended his life. He alone in that private moment knew the reason. Perhaps I refrain from speculation because in Bourdain I recognized a familiar interior struggle, the desire for authentic relationship shrouded by the angst of isolation. We fear that if someone knows the real us, they will leave us and we will be alone. Yet it is not perfection that breeds genuine relationship; the experience of being disappointed by another means we have shared our humanity. Imperfection becomes its own beauty because it is through our flaws where we find our common humanity. Our limitations create the need for each other.

Loss ironically reveals the significance of our connections. While we may need to accept that the physical person is gone, we seek the ways in which we can hold on to what mattered. Bourdain meant something to me, and I want that meaning to go on, to find a way to flourish. It is a way to keep those connections valuable, even though the person is no longer there.

I wonder if Anthony Bourdain had any idea about all the people who felt connected to him, who now see emptiness where he once stood. If he had known, would it have made a difference? Would I be writing about something else, hopefully something mundane, if he had been given a glimpse into how much we need his risk-taking, his plain-speaking, his mistakes, his foibles, and his passion – how much we simply need him?

I am tempted to provide comfort and say this will all get better. But that seems disingenuous to the memory of someone who easily called “bullshit” when he saw it. The truth is, this hurts; we will find few answers and more questions. We may want to say that if suicide can claim Bourdain, it can claim any of us, so why bother. But maybe this is what Bourdain has given us, a final demonstration of his own humanity so we can be affected by it. Instead of retreating from those we do not know, we can sit down, reach across a table, and share a meal. Maybe his absence can continue to remind us how we need each other’s presence, and it is the risk of being ourselves that leads to togetherness.

Good travels, Tony. I will miss you.

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