Processing Pain: The Legacy of Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain’s Death | Parts Unknown | Eric Ripert | Apollo Fields Photojournalism

Watching Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown with Eric Ripert offers insight into the turmoil behind Bourdain’s infamous irreverence. Around every corner of conversation Bourdain’s slinging some cryptic or grotesque piece of humor, landing upon Ripert’s matter-of-fact ears like juvenile jabs from a close friend. It is entertaining albeit haunting, to hear the words “death” and “I want to die” come from Bourdain’s mouth. Perhaps the saddest part though, is that the callous, cynical persona that we all fell in love with was slowly consuming the host of Parts Unknown right in front of our laughing eyes.

Hindsight is 20-20 of course, and now watching the show is an exercise of recognizing his blunt, unforgiving humor as the red flags of a man publicly processing his inner demons. Bourdain’s trip to Buenos Aires in one episode is particularly poignant as it cuts in and out of a therapy session where he explores and laments his character. Bourdain says that he wanted nothing more than to look out the window and think, “life is good,” but couldn’t see past what he considered an unfixable, untreatable “character trait.” The reality is that he was processing his pain the way he was accustomed to—using lewd jokes as bridges for cross-cultural conversations—it’s just a shame that we didn’t see these devices as explorations of his mental “parts unknown,” rather than hilarious quips.

Yet that’s exactly what our mental machinations are to each other: “parts unknown.” Bourdain knew he would find no sympathizers with his woes because, let’s face it, he had a job we all could only dream of. But I’m beginning to believe that our feelings, the things us millennial are infamous for, are perhaps the only knowable truths in our lives. Yes they are subjective, but no set of objective circumstances can make them invalid. Bourdain felt suicidal despite the objective reality of a world full of open doors. He told us his truth in his way and we loved him for it. His opinion on life is valid. If his unfortunate demise is to teach us anything it is to further explore and explain our own mental “parts unknown.”

I see a problem today is that avoiding our introspection is easier than ever. We dive into any form of social media and relate to each other or fictional characters with similar problems but never really engage with our “parts unknown.” We recognize social media as a problem in the same breath that we launch an hour long conversation about Stranger Things or Black Mirror. I do believe that we all want to be stronger, but few us of have the will power to shut down our apps and sit in uncomfortable silence. Just the other day, when I was asking a friend what he thought about a current painful event in my life he recommended watching The Good Place and American Vandal on Hulu and Netflix respectively. I called him out and couldn’t help but think that we are treating our “parts unknown” with a healthy dose of social media. But I don’t want to distract the pain away, I want to engage it.

And I think that’s exactly what Bourdain was doing. Let me be clear, the irony of me opining about social media consumption while learning a life lesson from social media is not lost on me—it is a reflection on a particularly honest man. Bourdain’s death is a representation of what can happen when we conflate our mental machinations, our feelings, our “parts unknown” with consumable pieces of entertainment. If we don’t learn to resist the urge to hide our feelings in our favorite characters and friend’s Instagram stories, I fear that we all increase our likelihood of realizing the same fate. In a nod to Mr. Bourdain and to all of the pain in the world, be strong and speak on it. Not just on social media, but to your friends and family, and more importantly, to yourself.

Photo credit: The Hollywood Reporter