Were you shocked to hear that Anthony Bourdain took his own life this past week? I had not yet finished processing the news of Kate Spade’s apparent suicide, and now this. I cannot peer into the human heart from so far a distance from the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but I have a few hunches why this sort of thing happens. It’s called “all that glitters is not gold” or “fool’s gold.”
The objectives of our crass material society are just those–crass materialism and superfice. People expend so much of their energies on outward trappings of success and enjoyment, they forget that the real ground for mining lies within. Mother Teresa said it so plainly, “The people in America are rich on the outside but spiritually poor.” No human being can truly be happy without connection to a deeper meaning in their life. That meaning for the majority of the Third World, the poor hungry masses with maggots in their hair and air in their guts, is God. Without God, without the consciousness of a true struggle for goodness, for self-abasement and an unfolding sense of gratitude, the human soul falls into despair. The Third World that holds so little by way of material goods might be happier for it because it is forced to look at the non-material to give meaning to itself. I am not making poverty into a romantic notion, but the little time I have spent in places where the material wealth is meager, I have found that people are more connected to each other and the world beyond them. But as critics point out, the Third Worlders do not have the luxury of worrying about their happiness or satisfaction with life because they have too many needs lower down on the Maslow heirarchy to take care of. You can’t really be concerned with the chasm in your soul when you have cramps in your stomach.
Yet on the other hand, I am sure many poor people of the dust are shaking their heads in pity for these rich but unhappy celebrities. It makes a bigger statement to end your life with so much going for you, especially when your life is the coveted one, the one that has become the goal for so many of the minions you are setting the standard for. The shock of the suicide of these paragons of success brings back the line of a poem I have often taught in English classes, the one about Richard Cory, the gentleman who glittered when he talked, imperially slim, who was envied by the people of the pavement who worked till dusk and cursed the bread until one fine morning he went home and put a bullet through his head. What glitters is not gold. The pursuit of brand name status is fool’s gold. That is not what makes you happy.
But there is a bigger explanation for these apparent suicides of the rich and famous: the need for myth. The generalized despair that exists in the US, what with the growing opiod epidemic and increased alienation due to technological innovation, speaks to the hunger in the collective soul. People have stopped believing in the things that give life meaning—relationship, interconnectedness, kindness, God, beneficence, civic engagement, the pursuit of excellence for its own sake. When a society stops aiming for those ideals, it falls apart. When a society is not united in its collective aim for what is valuable to achieve but splits into various splinter groups that then go on to split into various splinter groups, what you get is a Tower of Babel with many fist fights.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” Yeats said, and so the Second Coming is near.
When there is no higher spiritual truth, or else such a smorgasbord of pick-your-own truth, when people have stopped believing in the myths, the life stories that speak to a deeper truth about human experience, when there is more focus on the church building itself and not the real church, the community of souls that make it up, then the collective soul of man is dead.
“Do you really believe in the Greek gods Ms?” my students ask me in World Mythology class. “Do you worship Zeus and Athena and all the rest of the Olympians?” they ask with a bewildered face, half mocking, half shocking.
“I believe in the truth behind the myth,” I explain. I try to teach them about the etymology of the word “mythos” in Greek, which contrary to its English connotation does not mean something made up or “fake.” It means “something made, something fashioned.” Humankind, when it stops making myth, stops making meaning. Without meaning, well, life is not worth it. R.I.P. Anthony Bourdain.