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  • Michael Da

Anthony Bourdain and the Challenge of Meaning in Midlife

Updated: May 1, 2019


A man whose work I loved and admired, chef, author, and TV host Anthony Bourdain, took his own life last week at the age of 61. Although Bourdain's far-flung travels, lavish meals, and occasional bouts of heavy drinking could come across as base hedonism, his thoughtful reflections on the meaning of food, culture, society, and life demonstrated that Bourdain was using food and travel as the windows into a deeper meaning of life.


A Sage of the Soul

I like to think of Bourdain as a sage of the soul, as Carl Jung conceived of the soul: that ethereal part of a human being that reaches out to connect with meaning in the world of the living through music, art, and culture. Jung referred to the deep stirring one might feel from listening to a piece of music as a movement of the soul [1]. Bourdain's musings on food, culture, and travel spoke to the soul's yearning, reaching out into the unknown within the world to find meaning.

Individuation: The Soul's Challenge in Midlife

Jung also described the soul's journey in life as a series of trials that are like the various journeys through the underworld described in ancient myth [2]. The soul overcoming the challenge of the underworld was a way of overcoming a metaphorical death that threatened to become a literal one. In other words, decent into the underworld is a metaphor for an existential challenge. Jung further posited that the passage into midlife is a common challenge in adult development that is typified by the underworld myth.

The evolution of Bourdain's work over the 20 years since the publication of his first book, Kitchen Confidential, showed many signs of the development that are typical among men who successfully navigate this passage into midlife. Bourdain's ever more inclusive and accepting attitudes toward women, foreign cultures, and ways of thinking are markers of the kind of integration of opposites that Jung pointed to in midlife development—for example, the integration of masculine and feminine [3]. Jung called the emergence of a personal identity that comes from this process of integrating opposites individuation.

The Highest Rates of Suicide By Far Are Among Men Over 35

Many of my clients are men over 35, and they are often facing some version of this passage through the underworld, as Jung described it—the struggle to find meaning and purpose as they enter into the second half of life. Public attention is often justly paid to suicides among a number of marginalized groups, including teens, veterans, and transgender people. However, it is an under-publicized fact that the largest number of suicides by far are among men over 35, and in general men commit suicide at four times the rate of women [4]. This is true in Colorado, especially, where we have one of the highest suicide rates in the U.S.

What Went Wrong for Anthony Bourdain? A Case for Height Psychology

Judging by his public persona, Bourdain seemed to be successfully navigating the individuation process. He was at the height of his career, had meaningful social connections, traveled frequently, had a young daughter, was engaged in a romantic relationship, and had a newfound love of fitness and martial arts. These are all factors that, according to Jung's depth psychology, one would expect to mitigate the risk of suicide for a man Bourdain's age. So, what could have been so profoundly lacking that this eminently successful man would take his own life [5]?

Although Bourdain appeared to be well-integrated with Jung's concept of the soul, Jung also identified a higher level of spirituality, that he called the spirit. Psychologist Roberto Assagioli called this connection with the upper realms the higher unconscious. The spirit, or higher unconscious, is the part of human consciousness that reaches toward higher guidance and resources–to God, Source, or the Mystery. The spirit is the part of us that prays, intuits, and transcends. It enhances and balances the lower unconscious, which is associated with a more worldly sort of wisdom. Bourdain was a self-professed atheist, and he indicated on a number of occasions his resistance to connection with the spirit or higher unconscious. In the following clip, Bourdain receives a cleansing from a Peruvian shaman. What is not explicit in the clip, but is expanded in the full episode, is Bourdain's outright skepticism about the experience [6].


The spirit is one of the key aspects of height psychology, as opposed to the emphasis of the soul in depth psychology. The special need that is fulfilled by the spirit is is exactly one of the reasons I emphasize both height and depth psychology in my practice. Jung's passage through the underworld is meant to take a person to the light at the end of the tunnel. But what is that light? The journey of the spirit, or higher aspects of our consciousness, is the journey deeper into that light for greater clarity about and integration of the Mystery. To reach a higher level of meaning implies some sort of transcendence. It is this transcendence that gives life meaning and buoyancy both in good times and bad. It is the compass that helps us to navigate home.

I don't know what triggered Bourdain's decision to take his own life. But I do know that time and time again, I observe in my clients that to successfully navigate through midlife and beyond, it is critical to connect to both soul and spirit—to develop a psyche that is adept at both depth and height. Connection with life through music, poetry, art, and food is beautiful and illuminating. But transcending the level of the soul for a more direct and profound experience of and facility with the Mystery of life can also be a critical component for going beyond the journey through the underworld to live a fulfilling life once that passage is complete.

If you or someone you know is struggling to find meaning and purpose in life, especially in midlife and beyond, please contact me. If I'm not the best fit to work with you, I will try to connect you with someone who might be. It isn't a foregone conclusion that every person in midlife is at risk of suicide, but it is important to know that most people who commit suicide have not been diagnosed with a mental illness. Don't underestimate how crucial it is to successfully navigate this time of passage in one's life.

Notes:

[1] See, for example, Jung, C. G. (1982). The collected works of C.G. Jung, vol. 3: The psychogenesis of mental disease (3rd ed., G. Adler & R. F. C. Hull, Eds. & Trans.). [iBooks version]. Retrieved from http://ibooks.apple.com

[2] There are many such myths, but perhaps the most well-known is the myth of Orpheus.

[3] See, for example, Anthony Bourdain Stood Up For Women Without Making It About Him.

[4] This article from the Coloradoan states that of the 81 people who died by suicide in Larimer County in 2015, 40 were men over 35. That's about half of the total number, and nearly double the number of deaths in the next closest demographic group, men 18-35. For more details, see this article from the Colorado Health Institute.

[5] I didn't know Bourdain personally, and I wasn't his therapist. Any number of factors could have triggered his decision to commit suicide. Nonetheless, I feel it is fair to compare his own public statements to other cases common psychological factors to infer some possible reasons for Bourdain's actions. I do this to glean meaning from Bourdain's tragic death, rather than project some level of expertise on the personal life of a man I didn't know personally.

[6] Parts Unknown, Season 1, Episode 8, available on Netflix.


Michael Asa Da, LPC, Rev
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