I waited to start “God’s Favorite Customer”, Father John Misty’s latest album, until the propellers were spinning on the small plane at the end of the runway out of Dublin, headed on the short flight toward Glasgow. The morning was unseasonably bright and clear, directly at odds with the mood and the music as we crossed over the Isle of Man. And I thought about Anthony Bourdain.
I’ve written about Misty – real name, Josh Tillman – before, as he is one of the more perceptive analysts of the loneliness and separation of our times. In his last album, “Pure Comedy”, he sang about the technological despair of a future marked by ephemeral relations, where we are “bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift”, predicting that “When the historians find us we’ll be in our homes / Plugged into our hubs / Skin and bones / A frozen smile on every face.” But there’s another lyric that applies more to Bourdain’s situation: “Can you believe how far we’ve come? / In the new age / Freedom to have what you want / In the new age we’ll all be entertained / Rich or poor, the channels are all the same.”
Bourdain’s suicide looks increasingly like an impulsive act. There is no mention of a note. He hanged himself after a few days of work – eating and filming with one of his best friends, fellow chef Eric Ripert, in a French village. He walked the cobblestone streets with his typical skinny aging rockstar lope. He took pictures with fans. He Instagramed his breakfast, with his normal ironic commentary (Bourdain famously hated Instagramming food, saying in 2014 “It’s bullshit. It’s about making other people feel bad about what they’re eating. And a certain knowledge that what you’re eating is more interesting.”).
So in leaving us, Bourdain leaves behind more confusion than anything else. There are rumors, of course – a fight with his girlfriend, a relapse to his famed drug use after years of not using – but there’s no evidence either is true. We don’t know if he reached out to anyone before he went, or if he lied and said he was fine. As Misty sings on his new album: “One more cryptic message / Thinking that I might end it / Oh god, you must have woken up / To me saying that it’s all too much / I’ll take it easy with the morbid stuff.”
From the outside perspective, Bourdain had it all: wealth, fame, a job where he traveled the world, dined with interesting people, was friends with chefs and presidents, ate the best food whether surrounded by finery or by a jungle, and could go anywhere and do anything he wanted. The question disturbs our modern assumption that the highest good is enjoyment of the finest things for as long as possible: Why would someone who was the envy of all, who consumed the best things the world had to offer, choose to leave the world behind of his own volition?
The answer is almost assuredly loneliness and depression – both of which Bourdain has talked about in multiple interviews over the years, and since his divorce. Listening to his conversations over the weekend with Marc Maron and David Remnick, it’s barely under the surface of his conversations – and if you’re familiar with his shows, they seem less like advocacy for an approach to life, and more like arguments with himself about the inherent goodness and beauty we can find in the world.
The disturbing truth we have to recognize is that Bourdain is not alone in his loneliness and depression. We are experiencing an incredible increase in suicide levels according to the latest research from the CDC. From 1999 to 2016, suicide increased in every U.S. state but one (and that one is Nevada, which remains in the top ten states for suicides). It is one of the top ten causes of death and one of only three such causes on the rise. The rise is seen in every age group and across all demographics, but particularly among people who look like Bourdain: 84 percent of suicide victims are white, and roughly 77 percent are men.
Last month, a CIGNA survey found that loneliness is epidemic, and that the youngest Americans proclaim the highest levels. “One in four Americans (27 percent) rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them. Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful (43 percent) and that they are isolated from others (43 percent). One in five people report they rarely or never feel close to people (20 percent) or feel like there are people they can talk to (18 percent).
“Only around half of Americans (53 percent) have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis.”
Writing in USA Today, Kirsten Powers – who herself battled suicidal urges and depression a decade and a half ago – argues that this is about something deeper than just changing demographics or economic displacement: Americans are lonely, depressed, and suicidal because something is wrong with our culture.
“[W]hy are so many more Americans getting to this level of emotional despair than in the past? As journalist Johann Hari wrote in his best-selling book Lost Connections, the epidemic of depression and despair in the Western world isn’t always caused by our brains. It’s largely caused by key problems in the way we live.
“We exist largely disconnected from our extended families, friends and communities — except in the shallow interactions of social media — because we are too busy trying to “make it” without realizing that once we reach that goal, it won’t be enough. ”
The line from Bojack Horseman comes to mind: “That’s the problem with life, you either know what you want, and you don’t get what you want, or you get what you want, and you don’t know what you want.” Or from a slightly higher quality source: “We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things… [But] the things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren sceptre in our grasp.”
Bourdain proclaims an abiding love for Glasgow in his “Parts Unknown” filmed in the city several years ago – “my favorite city in Scotland, one of my favorite cities on Earth.” He goes to a pub built in 1510, wanders the shadowy streets and witnesses a knife fight, eats haggis (which he says has an undeserved bad reputation), before he heads north to shoot and eat a ten point buck on a massive hunting range. After the kill, his hunting partner smears fresh blood all over Bourdain’s face, as is tradition – and he smiles and laughs through the bloody mess. Fitting for a man whose entire career, his second life, began after writing a New Yorker piece that famously opens: “Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay.”
But good food is about something else too: it’s about bonding with others, whether breaking bread with those we deeply love or sharing it with those unlike us. Bourdain was big on rejecting knife blocks, arguing that you really just need one well-loved and very sharp chef’s knife in the kitchen. The sharp knife is a tool: it can take a life, destroy in cruel fashion, but it also has the ability to create incredible things. Making a good meal for someone, even if it is nothing complicated, is an expression of love: it is an invitation to share, for one dinner at least, in our common humanity.
Dining at Mother India last night, Bourdain’s favorite in the city, eating and drinking at a long table of friends, the Misty lyric came to mind: “People, we know so little about ourselves / But just enough to wanna be nearly anybody else.” Maybe rejecting that modern message is what this comes down to in the end: embracing the tragic view of life, recognizing who we are in the mirror, not being afraid to ask for help when we need it, and extending a hand of grace to those we think are in need of one.
Sometimes, that’s enough. Sometimes, it is the difference between death and life.