You Belong, You Matter (Thoughts on Anthony Bourdain)

Who was he?

A little over a week ago, I, like many, was saddened and shocked to hear of the suicide of Anthony Bourdain, or “Tony” known by most of those close to him. Bourdain was a renowned chef, music loving performer, and accidental journalist of sorts. He was most well-known for his show “Parts Unknown” on CNN where he would travel all around the world, from rural Mississippi to the far reaches of Myanmar to try food, meet people, and bring an unstructured, personal take on a culture.

His Question

His fans, myself included, were distraught to hear not just of his passing, but of his apparent suicide in Paris while filming an episode of his award-winning show. Bourdain was a magnetic force, appearing to have an unassuming, approachable personality, with an insatiable curiosity about people. His show was well known not because of all the fabulous cuisine, but because of his interactions with those whom prepared the food. He wanted to know their world. He wanted to know them. He wanted to know their appetites, being a passionate character himself.  He was once quoted saying, "I don't have to agree with you to like you or respect you.", which is perhaps why he was so effective at humanizing complete strangers. This is also reflected in a personal memory of a colleague of his who recalled the moment when he first met Bourdain, who brazenly yet simply asked him, “So what are you about?”

That question is one that I think we all instantly warm to. Someone cutting right to our heart- “what is it that makes you tick?” And he was interested. He wanted to understand people, and he was very effective at doing so because he made those he interacted with feel truly human by taking a genuine personal interest in them. He had no agenda as foodie, nor as a journalist. He accessed that ingrained need we all have to belong and matter, and he did so very effectively. He made people feel like they were human, and yet unique and significant. And he could do it with the simplicity of a shared meal and some questions- in a way that oddly mirrored the way Jesus interacted.

My Question

The question I have, as do many, is why? Why end like this? How could a guy who was so effective at humanizing others feel so unworthy of continuing his own life? I begin to look at his voracious curiosity as perhaps a quest to feel human himself- almost like the rest of the world had figured out or been bestowed the right to be human, and if he just traveled enough and asked enough questions, he might figure out this whole “human” thing like them. Maybe this chef, cook, or taxi driver would let him in. Maybe we would call him “human,” too. Maybe that would quiet the loud, raging demons he faced and give him hope for the future. Or perhaps it was the weight of meeting so many people from all over, seeing the commonality that makes one human, yet seeing the awful, dehumanizing acts humans as a whole engage in daily and being unable to reconcile the two lines of thought. I don’t know the answer. But nonetheless, something left him feeling hopeless, angry, sad, and fed up with the quest enough to take his own life.

An Answer

I don’t know if Bourdain practiced any faith in particular, but it seemed that upon his many travels and inquiries into the minds of others, he found no hope. He apparently felt no true sense of value or worth. I say that as a generalization about those who take their lives- that hope is amiss. And when we, as people, don’t feel human, nor significant, it is hard to have hope. It’s hard to see the point in investing energy into life for one more day. Perhaps this quote from him captures both the hope I am talking about, as well as his humility that was humanizing to so many…

“Maybe that's enlightenment enough: to know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom... is realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.”

Bourdain’s insatiable curiosity about others seems now to be a shield from the curiosity of others- from the humanizing power of others. Or perhaps his inquiry was a genuine quest to become human himself, almost an ethnography on this thing we called being human. But I wonder now how often others were interested in him, his life, and “what he was about?” I am not sure if that would have been enough to bestow humanity to him, to see him despite how small he or any of us truly are, but I think it’s a start for any of us. We can so easily miss the power we have to humanize one another by simply being interested.

Beyond becoming more human through community with each other, we still need hope. I find that in the Gospel of Jesus. In the Gospel we find a message of a humanizing hope. We find God literally becoming human to take upon himself the dehumanizing misgivings, mistakes, and utter failures of each of us. And through that humanizing forgiveness, we find within each of us gifts, talents, and abilities that reflect him, making each one of us significant. We get what we ultimately need- to belong and matter- and thereby get hope, not of an ultimate sense, but one we can give to others. This is indeed good news. Don’t miss your chance to give hope to others. Invite them into the game. Don’t miss your chance to receive this hope for yourself. Accept the invitation. You do belong and you do matter.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: