Anthony Bourdain, Empathy, and the Coming Cultural Revolution

I have to admit that I felt devastated when I learned of the passing of writer, chef, and TV host, Anthony Bourdain. When I heard about it I thought the universe should collapse on itself and be sucked into a dark vortex of sobs, silences, “what the fucks,” and “what nows,” but alas it didn’t.

One of the most common descriptions of Bourdain since his passing seems to be, among other things, that he was deeply empathetic towards people and cultures. To describe a celebrity as empathetic is not a common eulogy, as far as I can tell. Moreover, it seems like a less than common description of a man who displayed many so-called “masculine” behaviors, like shooting guns, slaughtering animals, and pursuing women. But, I think part of his charisma was this delicate balance of masculine power and feminine compassion.

I didn’t know him personally, so it is difficult, if not dangerous, to say anything about him. Clearly, he did encounter a lot of suffering not only in his personal life, including his own well-known struggles with depression and addiction, but also through his work where he encountered abundant suffering on this planet. He bore witness to the cruel impacts of post-colonialism, globalization, armed conflicts, xenophobia, disasters, and the culture wars that are playing out now in places like Beirut, Iran, Iraq, Haiti, Gaza, and the USA. Presumably, he would end a day of shooting in these places alone in his 5-star hotel room; perhaps the loneliness and contradictions were at times too much to bear.

Empathic Distress

I’ve learned from my own life, as well as through recent studies and research into compassion and empathy, including Joan Halifax’s most recent book, that while empathy and compassion are surely the keys to sustainable planetary equilibrium, i.e. peace and justice, empathy can sometimes be dangerous ground. People’s empathy can go too far into what is known as empathic distress as we get overwhelmed with feelings and act in ways that aren’t actually helpful to a situation, whether it is self-destructive behavior, co-dependency, or doing more harm than good in our efforts to alleviate suffering. I remember Bourdain reflecting on this during the Haiti episode of No Reservations when the good intentions of outsiders actually ended up causing harm.

While it can be very powerful to be in the know, some have argued that our brains have not actually evolved yet to take in so much information about people’s suffering from all over the globe. I know that I feel overloaded and overwhelmed by it and have to constantly monitor what I take in, in order to cope well and to be of service. Learning about Douglas Rushkoff’s ideas about digiphrenia has helped me to understand the ways that digital capitalism is a key culprit in our sense of overwhelm and in how we can end up becoming more isolated as a result.

Things feel very dark and sinister right now in my own country. Immigrants are literally being rounded up through cruel and tyrannical policies. Young people are feeling a lack of belonging, as they experience high rates of anxiety and depression. And the economic arrangements that are built on a model of endless growth and domination, and that require us to fetishize work at the expense of ourselves, families, and communities, is an ongoing disaster awaiting climax.

Many of us are obsessed with taking sides. Or we’ve just decided to check out. I wonder sometimes if there are enough folks working in the grey areas.

Meanwhile in my own life, I am dealing with an elderly, mentally ill parent who is living across the country on a poverty-level income. Bearing witness to her suffering (and thinking I need to fix it when I can’t) is a profound source of distress and difficulty. Growing up in a family where there was addiction and mental illness, I have always felt the pain of my family deeply. I am learning that it causes me to go into empathic distress and to not be able to respond well. Sometimes I respond by hurting myself, checking out, doing too much, or trying to control people and situations.

One of my meditation teachers says that there are open system people and closed system people. OSP feel a lot, they are sensitive to the world and people around them and are deeply affected by others’ feelings and experiences. They have very permeable boundaries between themselves and the world. It is very hard to function as an OSP. They need extra support and protection and need to limit their exposure to suffering. CSP are more closed off and don’t necessarily pick up on what’s going on with others (nor perhaps themselves). It is actually much easier to function in the world as a CSP, though they could benefit from deepening their capacity for empathy. I don’t know which one Bourdain was or if it’s even a valuable hermeneutic but he sure seemed to feel things deeply and to help others to do the same.

From Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization

Global Empathic Consciousness and Cultural Revolution

As Jeremy Rifkin has stated, empathy is the invisible hand of the planet. Its cultivation can perhaps be seen as a fulcrum for revolutionary change. The challenge, as Halifax says, is that empathy rests on a precipice and we have to be careful not to go over the edge. One way to prevent ourselves from going over the edge is to come back to self-compassion.

Many people who are deeply empathetic towards others have trouble cultivating compassion for themselves. We beat ourselves up, have un-kind self-talk and we aren’t able to recognize that it’s normal to make mistakes or to experience loss. Cultural norms teach us to be obsessed with comparing ourselves to others. It turns out, though, that the ability to cultivate self-compassion seems to be a linchpin for health and sanity. The more feminine self-compassion is actually a stronger predictor of healthy outcomes than the traditionally more masculine fixation on self-esteem. And so, many of us must re-teach ourselves by cultivating an environment in our bodies, minds and hearts that is basically kind. There are many ways to do this, but I try to do this through regular practices of gentle yoga, mindfulness, lovingkindness meditation, and prayer.

Without empathy, compassion, and self-compassion, we have a crisis of belonging. This crisis gets played out not only through mental health and addiction problems, but through interpersonal, community, and institutional means as cruel and paternalistic policies, toxic organizational environments, and a lack of capability to communicate across differences.

How can we evolve a global empathic consciousness that allows us to feel the pain of ourselves and others and respond well? What cultural transformations need to take place in order to achieve this? I think some starting points might be:

1. Disentagling the toxic masculinity that Bourdain himself started to address in the wake of #MeToo.

2. Teaching compassion, self-compassion, and lovingkindness practices to adults and children alike, as a basic skill that is as useful as math, science, or language arts.

3. Practicing nonviolent communication whereby we identify our own feelings and needs and listen to the feelings and needs of others, and to find common ground.

4. Creating new cultural stories where cooperation, caring, and belonging are foregrounded.

5. Enacting public policies grounded in compassion and empathy.

We need to be willing to talk about the difficult things in our relationships, workplaces, and communities. Perhaps we feel things deeply, but because pain is so uncomfortable we try to dominate our experiences and control others to dull our empathic distress. Or we just stew in despair and resentment. We need ways to check in with ourselves and each other such that we can notice distress signals and regulate them.

Kuan Yin

Revolutionary activity is by its nature difficult and inconvenient. It is against the stream, as the Buddha said. The Buddhist figure Avalokiteshvara, or Kuan Yin, is known as an androgynous embodiment of compassion. They are a representation of someone, known as a Bodhisattva, who postpones their own enlightenment in order to help humanity. Perhaps one could say that Anthony Bourdain was a kind of Bodhisattva. He was of this world and willing to get up close and personal with all of its beauty, brutality, pleasure, and pain.