What the death of Anthony Bourdain says about the world today
Today, marks one year since the day we, the world, lost Anthony Bourdain.
I remember distinctly where I was when I heard about it — sitting on a bus with a friend, excited with quivering legs finally about to step out of home after a particularly hectic few weeks. Possibly about to venture to a new restaurant, ironically, late on the night of June 8th, 2018, here in Singapore. She looked with sheer disbelief at my phone screen. I seemed a little lost — I only barely realized the loss of a familiar name — but she was aghast. Something seemed to break inside of her that day. She looked up with teary eyes — lurid and pained, her lips mumbled, “What kind of world do we live in?”
I’ve often thought back to the day, sometimes hesitant, sometimes willingly — but mostly unwittingly. On the day, I will admit, I did not understand my friends’s fear and pain. But since then, I’ve thought back to the day, and to the life that Bourdain lived. To the emphasis he laid on living every experience to its fullest, to the generations of people he inspired and motivated, and the empathy he commanded through his knowledge and insight. And yet, his unfortunate suicide.
In his third book, which I highly recommend to everyone, Yuval Noah Harari discusses the state of the modern-age and its dynamic nature. ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’, which attempts to be a guide and handbook to begin understanding our immediate future and our place in it — says this,
“If you feel overwhelmed and confused by the global predicament, you are on the right track. If you are left with the nagging feeling that this is too much, and you cannot process it all, you are absolutely right. No person can.”
When we migrated from the Age of Information, to this Age of Bewilderment, in unclear. The internet came, and nothing has and will ever be the same. It’s not that the frequency and intensity of tragic incidents has increased per se — the extended periods of non-war peace in so much of the world, has not been observed in centuries, but what definitely has increased due to availability of information, globalization and migration — is how much of this news we are inundated with. Bolsanaro is burning down the indigenous amazon rainforests, one of the foremost Buddhist nation is guilty of homicide after itself being under military dictatorships, Trump denies global warming, California’s forest fires are burning down cities, earthquakes in Nepal are ruining ancient heritage, Duterte has waged a self-justified war against drug-users, rising CO2 levels, refugee crises, rape culture — I mean, I think you get the drift.
You’ll ask, so what’s the connection I want to tie to our esteemed Chef? Well. Anthony, as I would fondly want to remember him as, was the fundamental spokesperson about his interest in the real mappings of the world. Whether his upfront description of his reason to travel the world, or in his own production manager’s words, “Tony didn’t do fake.” And I think any one of us, that dares to keep their eyes open and non-delusional today is immediately thrown into the cognizant pain of the entire world’s suffering, and how much worse it grows everyday. Whether it’s because there is increasing madness, whether it’s simply because the access to information is vastly increasingly, or whether it’s just how it’s always been. We are constantly thrown figures of deaths, rapes, assaults, war crimes, political ambitions and everything so very wrong and inconsiderate — and I find hard to believe anyone with any sensibilities still preserved would still has the energy to fight the negativity. The WHO presently puts the rate of suicide, worldwide, at one death every 40 seconds of the year. The number of attempts presently are 20 times higher than the cases of death. And it’s only growing, rapidly — with the rate for suicides for people within the age groups of 15–44 becoming one every 20 seconds by 2020, almost double in less than 2 years. It’s hard not to attribute some part this statistic to the increasing realisation of how depressing our world’s reality truly is.
You may be an optimist, trust me I am, but it’s difficult to remain one. When Anthony described his first visit to war-torn Cambodia, he had said —
“ … for the first time I realised that I was in way over my head. Inadequate in the task of even attempting to describe this place and what the people here have been through.”
Anyone who consistently exposed himself to the truths of the world, couldn’t possibly be an inherently happy person, could they?
Anthony craved new experiences, the reality of things, bringing these to his viewers and readers. Anyone who has read his work or seen his shows, can very easily distinguish between the storytelling he imbued and that of a lot of the rest. He was ‘real’ and he brought that in his attitude, in his scripts, and in all of his work. He called himself lucky, that his fame allowed him the fortune to be able to do all of this — to have the independence to write and create the way he knew how to. Don’t get me wrong, he so often brought out the best of cultures, and he had an extremely deep appreciation for the best in any place he visited, any person he met. But whether fortunately or unfortunately he found his style — that of this real. And did it cost him his life? Is it possible that if any of us are inherently happy, it’s because we’re ignorant, and maybe purposefully so? And what does that say about our learnt coping mechanisms, or about the world we live in?
But most of all, the moment I realized I respect immensely this honest Bourdain is when it struck me how often he expressed how difficult his life was for him, and the stitching agony he would oftentimes describe himself in. It’s not often we find persons the world believes as role models being open about their vulnerabilities — celebrities are expected to exude a seemingly indestructible façade of their lives.
And sadly, there has been more than one analysis even before his death, of his state, condition and depression. His own accounts of how over-reported his wealth was, and his relations describing the glassy-eyed and lost nature of Bourdain. And yet, while we heard everything… we lost him. We knew everything, we knew how he thought and what left him sore and when he felt his loneliest, and yet we lost him. For god’s sake he described how he imagined taking his life, in a lonesome hotel room, with the emptiness of fanciful decorum. And …that’s exactly how it happened.
Can we imagine the number of people we may lose then, whose struggles we barely have a grasp of?
The world lacks empathy, it’s hardly new news. Given the pace of change, we can barely take care of ourselves — maybe a few of our nearest dearest ones — the rest are called the idealist “fool’s-tax” payers. Who bother taking on a little more, maybe believe in some inherent betterment, the ones who rail against the norm of apathy — the ones who refuse to accept this as an inevitability. But maybe that’s why they’re important. Maybe that’s why the world refuses to be a lot better.
Maybe a few more of us need to pay our fool’s tax.
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please seek immediate professional help at your local country helpline number.