In college, a quote hung on my wall: “Here I am. This is me. Get the h-ll out of the way.” To a nobody from New Jersey who dreamed of bigger things, it was the battle cry of someone who knew his greatest asset was his grit. This kind of person embraced life and was ready to conquer it. That quote was from Anthony Bourdain.
Like most fans, I’ve spent the last few days wondering how a man of such fire and tenacity could die so defeated. I loved Bourdain for his zest for life and ability to overcome his demons. His skill at simultaneously getting under someone’s skin and into their hearts showed the world what a New Jersey boy is at his best. He lived life so deeply, yet died so hopeless. That shatters me.
These tragedies are an opportunity for us all to take stock of the world around us. Let us be intellectually honest about the sorrows of this life. Perhaps then, through a lens of sorrow, we can see the one, eternal hope that renders death not proud.
Yes, Suicide Is About Other People, Too
Since the world’s loss of Bourdain and Kate Spade, the Internet has been ablaze about the cause, effects, and prevention of suicide. Many are quick to object to the observation that suicide is selfish, saying it is instead the result of overwhelming mental illness. Still others have pointed out the surviving children of Spade and Bourdain and how these tragedies will follow them their whole lives.
I think it’s cruel to say suicide is selfish, but I also know this: I’m angry at Anthony and Kate. I’m angry for the sake of their children and their loved ones. But I’m also angry for myself. Like millions around the globe, these people brought joy into my life. I’ll always remember how, when I was unemployed, a friend gave me her Kate Spade bag and it lifted my spirits. I’ll remember that my first purchases for my new iPod in college were episodes of “No Reservations.”
We loved these people because they helped us see something in the world that brightened the monotony or sadness of our lives. Their curiosity, creativity, and joy gave us a reason to have some, too.
To take their own lives was a repudiation of the beauty and joy that they brought to us. They gave us something marvelous then took it back in the most devastating way. Knowing the tragic end of Robin Williams, who can watch “Mrs. Doubtfire” and laugh as she did before? Who can listen to David Foster Wallace encourage college graduates without weeping over his own unheeded advice? And now Tony’s warm humor and Kate’s cheerful creations, too, carry the musty perfume of the grave.
Where once we saw the magic and joy of being human, now we can only see the scars. The world’s reaction to these deaths is proof that suicide is never about one person. It stirs humanity because we’re all reminded that the bell, too, tolls for us.
Suicide Isn’t Always about Mental Illness
Another coping mechanism we’ve turned to is to blame the deaths on stigmas about mental health. Many believe these deaths were caused by a disease as biologically unstoppable as Parkinson’s or dementia. Still others see them as a deficiency of tangible things like valuable relationships and physical upkeep. Again, I think the truth is somewhere in between.
Of course, take medication, go on vacations, quit your horrible job, go to counseling—for heaven’s sake, do whatever you must to preserve your life. But what happens when you are fighting on all of those fronts and death still wins? In a dark night of the soul, there aren’t enough friends, money, or experiences to distract someone from the Big Empty.
Every human being must at some time confront the same disease that claimed Anthony, Kate, Robin, and every other person who takes his or her life: meaninglessness. Why are we here and is this life worth living? It’s a sobering thought.
Friedrich Nietzsche—another struggler—said that anyone with a “why” to live could endure almost any how. These wealthy, accomplished people had some of the most marvelous “hows” anyone could imagine. Yet none of it could make up for the lack of “why.”
There is a reason trauma victims, combat survivors, and celebrities are so vulnerable to suicide. Victims of abuse and witnesses to war are exposed to a depth of humanity that many of us never get to. The lowest lows show us just how depraved and hopeless this world can be.
Those with everything are often no different. The highest highs show us that, no matter what we achieve or acquire, the hopelessness doesn’t go away. Both the king and the pauper stare life in the face and see that it’s merely “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
The Antidote to Meaninglessness
In one sense, I agree with Kate and Tony: they were right to be broken-hearted. This is a broken world that neither they nor you nor I will ever be able to set right. Gunmen will continue to kill. Terrorists will bomb. Disease and poverty will ravage. And in 150 years, mourners, victims, saviors, and perpetrators alike will be equally forgotten. The abyss of time makes no distinctions between the hero and the villain.
As Kate, Anthony, Robin, and so many other entertainers show, even giving joy to others, in the end, is not enough. So in the end, why bother? How can we not be defeated when we set our eyes on the brokenness of this world? The answer: to fix our eyes on another world. The writer C.S. Lewis famously said that, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” If we believe this life is all there is, the darkness will blind us to the majesty and beauty of life.
Suicide is the tragic, but reasonable response to being confronted by life’s reality with no salve of deeper meaning to bandage the wound. This is why a life without God, no matter how grand, will always leave our hearts unfulfilled.
So please, take medication. Talk to your family. Go get treatment. Your life is precious to God and the people around you. It is worth fighting for. But no matter what help those things bring, our hearts only find true peace when they live for the one who created them. I wish my friends Kate and Anthony had felt that peace.