The chef Anthony Bourdain’s death is hard for me to understand and accept. Perhaps it is so because of my reading of Walker Percy. Percy invented the concept of the ex-suicide. The idea is that you can get all the way to the point of committing suicide and then turn back. You are now a suicide survivor. You can walk out into the light and air and realize, “I could be dead right now. Instead, I’m alive. Whatever happens next, I can compare it favorably with death.”
Of course, one might say that Anthony Bourdain knew as much. It would be hard to believe he had problems he couldn’t solve with money or perhaps use money to escape. The more likely problem is Weltschmertz (world-weariness). When one is tired of the way the world is, that is a difficult problem to overcome. He had already been down the road of severe drug addiction in the past, so he knew that didn’t offer a constructive solution.
World-weariness presents a powerful challenge, especially to an atheist like Bourdain. When the atheist concludes that the world is infinitely sorrowful or is doomed to repeat the same mistakes again and again or is disappointed by himself or others, then he asks himself, “Why should there be more? Why not simply be done with it?” He is convinced there is nothing on the other side than a fade to black.
I sometimes share the sense of Weltschmertz. It is especially a problem for those of us who think too much about politics. There are few arenas of life where one is exposed to as much dishonesty, cynicism, and confirmation of human frailty as politics. And the same, regrettably, can be true of religion, which has been the other great pre-occupation of my own life. We find that people we hoped would serve as exemplars and pillars are often all too weak or perhaps all too strong in their own cause. And thus we hear about the esteemed Christian academic leader (not the spangled televangelist) who earns a very high salary and whose wife has a “fur safe” or some other silly worldly contrivance. It is enough to utter the words, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”
Facebook, which I love and hate, is its own great source of world-weariness.
But there are things that rescue me from the Weltschmertz, from the pain of continuing to live and think. One is the many, many people who move in a different direction from the world’s prerogatives.
I think of the commitment of some amazing people in the pro-life movement. They are the ones who advocate for those who will never be able to do a thing for them. I am humbled by the thought of them working as sidewalk counselors outside of abortion clinics, giving free ultra-sounds at crisis pregnancy clinics, and actually adopting children thus allowing mothers in distress to walk away and yet know that someone is caring for their child. What a gift it is to be able to hand off a child rather than incurring the weight of death in order to get back on top of one’s own life. I think about how these people have suffered cynical, Machiavellian treatment at the hands of some parts of America’s elite political establishment, while being reviled by others.
I think about the people who do the hard work of attempting to help people receive an education and get ready for employment rather than just writing off some populations as marginal and consigning them to a lifetime of subsidies. Such persons are among the most compassionate of all people involved in a political movement and yet are also among the most likely to be charged with heartlessness.
I think about the preachers who never make more than $50,000 to $60,000 a year (and maybe much less) who labor over their sermons with care, who visit the hospitals, who perform the funeral services, who officiate over the weddings, who try to put back together families in danger of falling apart, and who will never, never know an ounce of fame in this world. How I love such people, the people who do ministry for all the right reasons and who are not captured by the seductive call of materialism. They probably will never go on a big destination vacation, but have their eyes on the greatest of all journeys to be taken by any people at any time.
It helps me to think about those people. It helps me to think about God. Anthony Bourdain lacked the fear of God. His parents raised him that way. No matter how desperate a person is, he might come to a halt before going so far as to take everything that he is and throwing it back into the face of the one who made him. The brilliant Anthony Bourdain didn’t have that fear. I wish he had. Fear can be one of our best friends in this life.
But fear is not the only reason to refuse to give in to a pervasive sense of world-weariness. It is certainly not the best reason. The best reason not to give in is trust in God. No matter how dark my feelings are about the world or leaders who disappoint me, I have faith that we will see real justice in the end from the Lord. The wrong things will be put right. The proud will be humbled. The true saints will be exhalted. We will all look upon God’s work and will say that the creator of justice has done right by his people. Indeed, we will look upon it and say that he gave us grace in generous, overflowing measure. Spend this life preparing for the next.