Earlier this month, we learned of the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. I did not know anything about Spade and only read that she had suffered from depression and anxiety for many years.
I was much more familiar with Bourdain, having seen him on TV, heard him on NPR and read his book, “Kitchen Confidential.” In my mind, he was a fascinating man who took a great interest in the world, her people and her foods.
He traveled not only to culinary capitals such as Paris, but also to remote villages in Africa, South America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. He often visited small shops and food trucks to taste their food. He honored the cooks and chefs of every restaurant he entered, no matter how small. Anthony tendered the greatest dignity to every human being he met and gave them his undivided attention.
Of course, we wonder why does a man who sells thousands of books, travels the world round and has television shows and rapt followers commit suicide? I wondered the same thing about Robin Williams, whom I still miss. He could be unbelievably crude sometimes, but he always made me laugh.
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Along with these sad losses, we learned last week that the national suicide rate is climbing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the startling new statistic that 50 percent of people who commit suicide have no history of mental illness. Some states are seeing increases of 30 percent.
The popular press has turned to the usual suspects such as depression, anxiety, homelessness, PTSD and drug abuse. And in the immediate aftermath, the National Suicide Hotline’s phone number is broadcast frequently. That’s a good thing. But I dare suggest it is not enough.
We must dig deeper to get at the roots of killing oneself. And these roots cannot be treated by Zoloft, Prozac or phone calls. I think there are deeper existential issues in our lives that we seldom discuss and may not even realize they make up a part of our soul.
The fact is that you do not have to live very long to know suffering. This is especially true of people who are subjects of trauma. The crushing of bodies, minds and spirits turns into a deep despair. We are often wary of “that” self, or we are fatigued by the pain, or we are worn down by a sense of self that is tattered and unpleasant. We don’t want to be around that person.
And at the same time, before the alienation and grief, we have a memory or hope for wholeness, for a self that is deeply cherished and loved. We imagine that if we could kill that broken self we could have a new beginning or a fresh start.
As Robert Kopecky suggests, this is actually a kind of profound wisdom: “The desire to return our battered soul into the care of a loving power, and rediscover our spiritual freedom.” But as someone once said, “When you commit suicide, you’re killing the wrong person.”
The challenge is to discover that loving power and spiritual body without actually killing your whole self. It means coming to terms with the suffering that has crippled us and letting that “self” fade away, or die, if you will. In turn, we enter the house of green valleys of hope, meandering streams of grace, orchards and garden plots of nourishing relationships.
That takes time and hard work. It takes a community that is willing to sustain you in the mutual search for whole human beings, you know, the kind that you wouldn’t want to kill off.
We can be such a place as that in our homes, workplaces, civic organizations and houses of worship.
Gary Blaine is chaplain at Susan B. Allen Memorial Hospital in El Dorado, Kan.