In a world where the most private of events quickly become public events, the back to back suicides of two people who by every standard of our world had it made does not so much raise the question “What makes life worth living?” as slam it in our faces.
Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain had each achieved financial success in their chosen fields, had family, friends and a measure of fame and admiration from people they had never met and were making a living doing things they had actively chosen to do. Neither was in the middle of a messy divorce or secretly in bad health. The fact that each chose the same method may suggest that the first event inspired the second, at least in terms of timing, but that is something we will never know. What we do know is that as good as either of their lives may have looked to the rest of us, they wanted out.
One of two things will happen now. Exhaustive research will go into trying to find out what unseen “demons” are responsible so the rest of us can rest easy or, as is more likely, we’ll move on to the next news cycle and try to forget about it as a “bad week”. We shouldn’t let that happen. There’s a lot at stake here. In the United States, where life is still better than in most of the rest of the world, twice as many people kill themselves every year as kill other people. The fact that many of the recent rash of multiple homicides are also suicides only reinforces the point. And then we have all the Opioid-related deaths, which could be called at the very least “accidental suicide”, and which, in addition to physical addiction, also point to a major lack in motivation to survive. Let’s look at that.
The will to survive has been hammered into us as the prime mover for all life, ours included. What if it’s not?
The reason that the religious mind-set has had such an attraction for and such a strong hold on the human species from our first emergence from the general herd is that we are different from the rest of the herd – biologically, not so much, but in everything that makes us human – our thoughts, aspirations and capabilities – we’re a whole new ball game. We’re the only life form of all the millions joining us in using up this planet’s resources who want more than this earth has to offer. What’s important to us is not what we can see, hear, touch and taste. That’s just the raw material, the “earth, formless and empty”, that the God of Genesis started out with (religious reference entirely intentional). There’s a lot of stuff out there, always has been, always will be - but we give it form - in the only place that matters - between our ears.
We do it obviously when we take the rocks and mud out of the ground and build the Empire State Building. We do it less obviously when we pause to appreciate a beautiful sunset. The sunset has no idea it’s a sunset. The billions of forces of energy, temperature, moisture and gravity that worked together to give us a beautiful picture are operating blind. We’re the only ones who appreciate this work of art. And it’s only a work of art because we appreciate it. The religious mind attributes it all to a divine artist, an artist who makes it for us to appreciate. And thinking of the whole thing as God’s will makes it easier to take if it’s pouring rain tomorrow night. At least somebody’s in charge, somebody who cares about us.
The people I work with on a day to day basis, in two senior buildings in Philadelphia, are people who life hasn’t handed any favors. Those who don’t have chronic disabilities have worked their whole lives for peanuts and are surviving on meager social security checks and food stamps. All are old, many are ill. For some, just getting out of bed is an exercise in pain that would have an Olympic athlete begging for mercy. Many have lost children. Nobody’s rich, nobody’s famous. Yet they endure. And for most, what keeps them going, what gets them out of bed every morning, is their religious faith. They spell it out, with full sincerity – “God is good”. They appreciate every breath they take. Don’t get me wrong. Jesus isn’t getting them out of bed in the morning – their faith is.
So what does this have to do with two famous people deciding not to see any more sunsets? Everything.
Deciding that life isn’t enough, that all the wealth, fame, love and good food in the world isn’t ever going to fill the empty space inside is not a problem for the mentally ill, for the chemically unbalanced, for the people whose parents didn’t give them enough love, for the unlucky or the too lucky – it’s a problem for all of us. It’s the human condition. Anybody who isn’t bothered by it isn’t looking. Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain were obviously looking.
Those of us still in the fight need to know what we’re up against. The same intellect and capacity for living symbolically that make it possible for us to mass produce designer handbags and fly to Paris for Beef Bourguignon opens the door to our realization that the world will never go along with our image of it. It can’t. It’s not its fault. It’s ours. We can do without religion, but we can’t do without belief.
Belief is what makes life worth living.
It’s also the price of survival, payable in cash, one day at a time.