Anthony Bourdain, Suicide, and The Meaning of It All

“Bourdain”: My title to a FB post;

I said to a good Facebook friend, “Thanks for getting an interesting discussion going on FB about this man’s tragic suicide. I am not competing, but I would like to address the question raised by the talking heads, who are going through all the predictable motions, with predictable negligible impact.”; and, “Why are suicides on the increase? Since I am holding on to my own small part of this huge elephant (My family law practice has been touched by @ a dozen fatalities, 2/3’s of which were suicides), I share this draft of my next blog article for your input and consideration.”

1. My reading leads me to believe that as humankind’s mental capabilities evolved and increased, and as our awareness of the dangers all around, and the inevitability of our deaths, became apparent, we perfected something the other animals simply do not have; “WORRY”.

2. Most animals evidence fear, as you can see when the deer or bunny bounds away, or the Mourning Dove bursts into the air with its frightened call, but look at them two minutes later, heads down, eating peacefully, but alert to future dangers. They don’t obsess or worry. I doubt they are even aware they are going to die.

3. Then picture the apes in Kubrick’s and Clarke’s classic, “2001 a Space Odyssey”, just before dawn the day they discovered the monolith. They are huddled together, cringing in fear from sounds of Saber Tooth Tigers and other predators. But they aren’t yet “special”, and they aren’t thriving. In Arthur C. Clarke’s vision, they are a marginal species, just hanging on.

4. If Clarke’s imagination was fact, however, those critters would not be worriers, yet;  and I’ll bet that in spite of the hardship, suicide was nearly zero.

5. But then that monolith shows up, patterns our brains to make tools, and that forerunner of the military style rifle and nuclear bomb, a thigh bone with a knobby end (whack!). But once our brains get that large and creative, worry arrives, including worry about “the hereafter”.

6. How did our predecessors deal with all that worry, especially fear of dying? And, in spite of that worry, suicides were rare for hundreds of thousand years. What happened?

7. Look at the caves of France, Chauvet and Lascaux, and the pregnant woman effigy doll found in what is now Germany, from 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. By then, we had begun to visualize and imagine, to worry, to philosophize and hypothesize, and to make tools and appreciate “things”.

8. Inevitably, some of the smarter critters, for reasons I try to imagine, but at least partly to control and organize the rest, came up with a solution.

9. The better ones may also have wanted to provide comfort and peace, but, remember, empathy and compassion weren’t well-developed. Egyptian “priests” were not generally devout or compassionate. Things were getting complicated, and solutions were contemplated. But we had no scientists and no concept of the scientific method. Their math, while miraculous for the day, lasted essentially unchanged for 3000 years. It sure was not calculus!

10. Those challenges somehow brought forth the great religious teachers and philosophers, including but by no means exclusively, the teachings of someone we call “Jesus of Nazareth”, “The Christ”. Collaborative creatures eventually discovered compassion and empathy, but first we just needed to get organized. We still had to fight to survive, and suicide remained rare.

11. The early “witch doctors”, shamans, medicine men, priests, prophets, and philosophers, most of whom, unfortunately, were patriarchal men, knew nothing of science. And they did not understand the fundamental principles of existence, time, matter, motion, space, DNA, evolution, or life.

12. They knew what they could see, that sometimes pigs hosted intestinal parasites, some plants were poisonous, as were some animals, and that occasionally people acted wacko. They saw these people as possessed by demons to be exorcised. They experienced terrible storms, floods that became legend, volcanic eruptions, shooting stars, comets, and eclipses. And, they had no clue what caused them. They personified them and desired to placate the entities that caused them.

13. So, they made up stuff. If we look at it  objectively now, we see they had no pipeline to any GOD; no hint they had been visited by intelligent aliens, no ancient cell phones or motorbikes; “Nada”! But, they thought hard and deep, sometimes consumed hallucinogens, and sometimes acted with cynical fraud, and claimed brilliant, supernatural insights.

14. It followed that they needed miracles and interventions by gods and spirits. So they invented them, and peopled “believed” and “had faith”. But not objective fact or evidence.

15. And they provided certainty:  “Follow ‘our rules’ and you will be just fine.”

16. “Rely on someone else to do the thinking. Fail to do so, and you will be punished!”

17. Where faith wavered or behavior deteriorated, we had good old animal and human sacrifice, and, later, threats of fire and brimstone, everlasting torture, unless we “toed the line”.

18. I won’t list a bunch of names here, but many of my Facebook friends are thinking deeply on these subjects. That’s why I can interact with friends in Ca., Fla., Michigan, Israel, Tasmania, and Libya, because I find people who are wondering about these same things.

19. No one puts more mental energy on the challenges to modern religion than my dear friend Joe JB Shaver. Try getting through your FB day, if you are his friend, without hearing from Bishop Spong, Steve McSwain, or The Dalai Lama. J.B. keeps you tuned in. “Welcome God 5.3.”, he cheerfully says each day.

20. Then there are the “new atheists”, Dawkins, Evans, Hitchens, Anderson, and Jacoby. (the latter two probably shouldn’t be lumped with the three former, but all are “secularists”.)

21. If you take away the myths, strip religion of the supernatural, tell the truth based on the evidence, and don’t replace it with anything, life can be truly terrifying. When we die, it is simply over except for the memories that live in others. That seems natural to me, but it scares most of us, and me once in a while.

22. If there is no “natural law” underlying our values, what are our values? If we won’t burn in hell, why do we do good? Why not be in the local drug cartel or Taliban or Isis cell? They’ll look out for you and help you prey on others.

23. That’s what I struggle with when I suggest we abandon the myths, the impossible stories, the threats, the moral elitism and the, “We’ll do the thinking for you.” attitude of most religions. What do we replace them with? I suggest reason, compassion, empathy, curiosity, and passion. And here’s why.

24. I fall back on Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes III’s essay, “Natural Law“. He talks about our desire for the superlative, our belief, especially our certitude when drunk says, “It is not enough for the knight of romance that you agree that his lady is a very nice girl—if you do not admit that she is the best that God ever made or will make, you must fight.” 

25. I rely on what I learned from him while in law school,  have paid attention, to parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, and mentors. I have watched other lawyers, especially the brilliant and impassioned ones that come in from all over the country to speak at our WVAJ events. And, I’ve been attracted to the “good guys” and “good girls”. They’re the ones who I want to be my friends.

26. In Sunday School, Methodist Youth Fellowship, Cub Scouts, The YMCA, choir, chorus, school, college, and everything else I did, I noticed those people and wanted to emulate them. 4-H had “Charting”. The manual’s title was in Greek, Gnothi seauton., “know thyself”.

27. I weighed the evidence, and then I wrapped my arms around my own “can’t helps” as Holmes called them; values and qualities that a whole human being should have. Then I worked as hard as this flawed human being could, failing miserably at times, to “be a good boy” as I promised my Mother I would be. A Good Boy is what she drilled into my head. Mine may be no better than yours, but I “feel” that they are right.

28. I think it has been a blessing to have been obsessed with this subject since my earliest memories. But I am struggling with the best way to help the person who just wants to live a happy, fulfilled, life. If they are going to “dead, dead and gone” as the old ’60’s song “And When I Die” ,  then what’s it all about? Why should we care? And why the hell are things changing so fast?

29. These questions scare the shit out of people, so they turn to drugs, alcohol, movements, meditation, and “strong leaders” and “inspirational leaders” for answers. In an age of “accelerating change” the problem of suicide it increasing. For now that is my working hypotheses. Our country is too consumer based. We brilliant apes are not adapting fast enough. We cannot process the dangers, our food, environment, drugs, information,  and misinformation. The resultant stress is enormous.

30. I intend to keep studying, to come up with my own solutions, and not to let someone else do the thinking.

31. Dawkins and Evans, the atheists, fall one step short, I believe, of my lame answer. They just detest religion. They do not provide a viable alternative to the average person, then non-scholar.

32. My friend J.B. wants religion to adapt and change. Bishop Spong likes to talk “gobbledygook” so the people who need old-time religion will sign on to his “new way”. It’s not that I disagree with him. He really is urging people to reject myth, tribalism, and judgmental thinking.  It’s just that he seems to be making the same choice the old myth makers did, “Follow me, and I will lead you to the light.”

33.Maybe that’s what I am doing, but I just want people to think critically, to read and watch things of quality, to wake up each day with passion and commitment, and to seek truth, regardless of your “faith” or “wish”. Don’t buy a “pig in a poke”; do not believe something because it is in the Bible or the priest or pastor tells you to.

34. Do your homework and seek truth.

For now, I will just have to admit, I do not know. I am still trying to figure it out.

This post was written by Burton Hunter

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