By Dori Koehler
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
As I complete this blog, it’s been a week since I heard the devastating news. My virtual storytelling mentor, the oft-heralded rock star of the culinary world, Anthony Bourdain has made the decision to leave us. Bourdain was one of those people I kind of hoped would live forever. In my childlike fantasy world, a utopian future would feature brand new works by Robin Williams, Alan Rickman, David Bowie, and Anthony Bourdain on loop. But alas, all these greats have left us. And whether they leave us by illness or by choice, the loss of unique voices such as these is alienating and confusing. In our grief, we are left to try to understand the work of great minds, to bring forward the lessons they teach, both in life and in death.
What precisely can we learn from the life and death of Anthony Bourdain? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot. In life, he was a master storyteller with a fresh perspective on the world. He hated pretension. He was known for calmly but insistently making his way into some of the most conflict-torn places in the world, and his work conveyed the universality of life. How many correspondents, for example, could venture into Iran and discuss the political implications of re-entry into the country experienced by Iranian-American expats? During a show on CNN honoring his life and contributions, his colleague Chris Cuomo lauds his ability to help people see beyond the kinds of things that divide us as humans, to weave a web of interconnectedness, and remind us that every story is our story. His genius is present in the way he brings people from all walks of life together to discuss topics that are generally be considered divisive. And in death, he continues to teach us about the chameleon nature of depression, the transience of life, and the fact that we can’t outrun ourselves, no matter how far we travel. There’s so much I could say about him, but I’ll keep it to two major points: in life, he taught us about what we can give each other, and in death, he continues to teach us about what we could have given him, and what we can give others like him.
Bourdain wasn’t shy about sharing the way his experiences shaped his life. He often made reference to the “demons” that followed him around everywhere he went. A close reading of his work reveals many references to self-harm. In an episode of The Layoverwhere he visits Seattle, he references the actual method he used to take his life. He seems poised right at the gateway between this world and the next, between physicality and ecstasy. In many ways, his life follows the path of the traditional shaman – alienation from the tribe (dropping out to work in kitchens), the descent into the underworld (drugs, drugs, and more drugs), the nearly fatal wound (addiction), the journey to the land of the gods (drugs again), and the return with the wisdom to impart to the tribe (his empathy, his writing, and the gifts he offered through his time on television). As a kind of contemporary global shaman, he travels the world offering healing through food, story, and biting sarcasm filled with wisdom. It’s pretty clear from the outpouring of grief and love for him that much of the world agrees. He was a mentor, a friend to many, and an inspiration to those who watched him and were transported by the stories he told. He was loved. He had family, a daughter he adored, friends, and partner in life of whom he was fiercely protective and who was fiercely protective of him. Which leaves me with one central question – what happened?
The Thinness of American Vocation
I can’t and won’t begin to speculate about the reasons for his decision to leave. As another teary-eyed colleague, Anderson Cooper, noted, we can’t begin to know what kind of pain he was experiencing in those final moments. It would be presumptuous and frankly indelicate of me to speculate as though I have any real answer. What I can do is muse on what we might learn to make a better world for the shamanic voices around us. The first thing that comes to my mind is some thoughts on vocation from a keynote address given by Dr. Ed Tick at a Pacifica Graduate Institute Alumni Association Coming Home event in January of 2016. Dr. Tick works with military veterans to promote psychological healing through group connection. He organizes trips back to Vietnam with veterans who seek reconciliation and healing, something I’m sure Bourdain would encourage wholeheartedly. He has had amazing success with his work. These trips change lives.
Dr. Tick suggests that being a warrior is a vocation, a calling. He reminds us that the spiritual traditions of many people have understood it that way. They made ritual around it. When warriors of these traditions enters into rites of initiation, they are fundamentally changed. This change forges a new identity for them. When they go to war, they fight bravely; when they return home to peace, they know they have other jobs to do. He argues that this kind of self-assurance of identity, of vocation, is largely missing in our society. He suggests that re-forging the connection to the ancient warrior is vital to the psychological health of a military person, both during their service and after.
This talk moved me deeply, and it returns to my mind now as I ponder the vocation of the contemporary healer. The thin experience of vocation in our contemporary society is a problem, not just for warriors, but in the way we craft (or ignore) vocation across the board. Recent studies suggest that depression might stem from a lack of connection, of deep soulful belonging in the sense that Brené Brown writes about in her book Braving The Wilderness: The Quest For True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. She suggests that being able to walk the vulnerable path is inextricably linked to the ability to get comfortable with being alone. She also suggests that we come to true belonging not by being surrounded by what is the same, but by engaging with what is different. That certainly sounds like the path walked by Bourdain. But it’s not that simple for those whose path requires that they get in touch with the darkest and ickiest parts of life.
This is particularly challenging for those walking the path of a mystical healer, because let’s be honest, what has a shaman ever been but a delicate combination of artist, storyteller, magician, and psycho-spiritual (sometimes physical) healer? It’s their vocation to sink into the darkness, to allow the wound to take them to the edge. They do it to help us feel. Brown says, “When we hear someone else sing about the jagged edges of heartache or the unspeakable nature of grief, we immediately know we’re not the only ones in pain. The transformative power of art is in this sharing. Without connection or collective engagement, what we hear is simply a caged song of sorrow and despair; we find no liberation in it. It’s the sharing of art that whispers, ‘You’re not alone.’” That was certainly true of the impact Bourdain’s work had on his viewers, but did it ever find its way into his own heart? The ultimate tragedy of the thinness of our cultural structures is that instead of true belonging we get fame, and instead of rootedness, we get wealth.
What happens to the soul of a shaman when they to go through the depths of the darkness of initiation only to be met with no true ritual container on the other side of the experience? Think of what it would mean to have no language with which to hold the transformation, no way of truly understanding who one has become. The sheer terror of the experience itself is enough to break the psyche open and the wound is enough to kill, but when it happens without the benefit of a cultural understanding of the change in one’s identity, the end result is often depression and a retreat into oblivion.
Brown continues, “Right now we are neither recognizing nor celebrating our inextricable connection. We are divided from others in almost every area of our lives. We’re not showing up with one another in a way that acknowledges our connection. Cynicism and distrust have a stranglehold on our hearts…. Addressing this crisis will require a tremendous amount of courage.” Bourdain had that courage in excess. He had these connections in life. He had loved ones who were there, who certainly made him feel loved and valued. We saw this courage in him, but ultimately it wasn’t enough to sustain him. There is no easy solution to this problem, no simple answer that will plump up our vocational roles in society enough to make them whole and hale. As we walk this path in life, we will most certainly lose many more of the brightest souls around us. The best we can offer is a true recognition of the road they are traveling, to make ritual with them, to honor the balance of life, to fluff a pillow for them to land on when they arrive, and to pour them a stiff drink for the road when they are ready to return to the land of myth and legend. RIP, Tony. Peace to you on your return trip back to the stars. And thanks for the memories.
Dori Koehler, Ph.D. is a cultural mythologist and scholar of American popular culture. She is a professor of the Humanities, Interdisciplinary Studies, Popular Culture, World Mythology, and the Fine Arts at Southern New Hampshire University. She also teaches Classical Mythology and Shakespeare to children online through the Gifted Home Schoolers Forum. Her book The Mouse and the Myth: Sacred Art and Secular Ritual is available on amazon. Her latest article on Walt Disney as a manifestation of the trickster archetype will be published in a forthcoming collection of essays through John Libbey Publishing. She lives in Santa Barbara with her husband and their cocker spaniel, Lucy.