What Anthony Bourdain’s death taught me about food, pleasure, and life’s meaning.
Published on: 07-16-2018
It’s been several weeks, and I still find myself thinking about him.
I distinctly remember the day I walked through the aisles of the public library, pulling a curious-looking book from the shelf. Flipping through the crisp pages, I paused to read a singular account. It was a graphic story of how this man and a group of unnamed elite chefs clandestinely enjoyed eating the delicacy of an endangered species. I put the book down and walked away.
That experience would shape my understanding of Anthony Bourdain. I rarely gave attention to anything he produced, except for occasionally catching a clip of his acclaimed TV series online. On the few occasions I saw him, I was fascinated by his work.
After Your Dreams Come True
Bourdain had an incredible job: roam the world, engage fascinating people, and eat their food. A natural storyteller and lover of people, Bourdain exposed those of us in the increasingly isolationist West to situations and stories that we needed to hear, and for this he deserves respect. He did all this while living his dream.
After he took his own life, many wondered how a person in such a fortunate position could give up so easily. But the signs were there. In a profanity-punctuated New Yorker article in February 2017, Bourdain had posed a piercing question: “What do you do after your dreams come true?” The words are haunting.
Bourdain was a self-styled aesthetic enthusiast. On some levels, I would put myself in that category. I have an appreciation for aesthetics and pursue illusory perfection. I enjoy writing with German fountain pens, Japanese ink, and French paper. I can tell you the farm on which the best peaches I’ve ever tasted are grown. I know it’s weird, but I buy heirloom beans from the American Southwest that were cultivated by ancient Puebloan cliff-dwellers. I’ve enjoyed the best Persian nougat, brought from Isfahan, milky white and studded with pistachios. Don’t get me started talking about pizza.
Life Is More Than Food
I could go on, but who really cares? Those of us who seek to follow the example of Jesus should be arrested by His words, rippling through time, speaking to our generation of hedonists: “Is not life more than food?” (Matt. 6:25).[*]
Even Anthony Bourdain recognized the troubled reality of his profession. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, he was on the couch of a psychologist, lamenting his sporadic depression, which was undoubtedly tied to the nature of his work.
“George Orwell said something that really upset me,” Bourdain said on his program in 2016. “He talked about [how] human beings are essentially tubes into which we shove food. And this is my job.”
He seemed to struggle with the superficiality of his work, hinting that conspicuous consumption and the pursuit of pleasure for pleasure’s sake leads to a shallow, meaningless existence. He spoke freely about his continuing struggles with drugs and alcohol—famous anesthetics intended to cover personal pain. Even though it paid the bills, the pleasures of eating and drinking, or chasing after any other misguided passions of the human appetite, brought no lasting satisfaction. These pursuits never will.
The True Meaning of Pleasure
At the same time, though, a meaningful life does not consist of self-deprivation. God is not interested in keeping us from experiential pleasure. Rather, He wants to help us discover the true meaning of pleasure and to lead us to sources of pleasure without hangovers, shame, and regret.
Consider the existence God intended for Adam and Eve: live in and tend to a tropical paradise, eat freely of the most exotic, tree-ripened fruit, and enjoy sexual intimacy with your life partner. “Be fruitful and multiply,” He says, “and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Eden was pleasure. God’s purpose in placing humankind at the epicenter of pleasure was to lead them to Himself as their Creator—the One who proclaimed all things good and very good.
David was right when he said, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). And Orwell was staggeringly wrong when he distilled consumption down to its basic biological necessity. If this were the case, God would not have wasted His time giving us taste buds. And don’t tell me that this is simply an evolutionary development to keep us from inadvertently eating a toxic berry.
God’s Life-Saving Parameters
God created us to experience pleasure within His parameters.“Yes, eat freely of the fruit,” God says, “but there is a boundary that you are not to cross.” There is no such thing as freedom without restriction. So God established a boundary, not to keep the human race from pleasure but to protect it from the tyranny of self-indulgence and the scourge of meaninglessness. Of course, we still fall for the age-old lie that fidelity is restricting, believing that, for some reason, we are being kept from something wonderful. Again, David—who at times struggled with his own self-indulgent tendencies—provides instruction and encouragement: “No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Ps. 84:11).
Edenic pleasure was centered in the One who gave Eden as a gift. The relational boundary was the forbidden tree. When the pair chose to sever their relationship with God, they fled to the bushes, hiding from the One who had given them their deepest satisfaction. Their experiential pleasure was now burdened with shame. The ever-brilliant C. S. Lewis warns us of the danger of lowering our gaze from the Giver to the gift.
“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Only He Can Satisfy
In light of this, where is the pleasure in a bit of sizzling gristle in the bottom of a pan? Where is the temptation to drink deep from the murky dregs of a broken cistern, when the Infinite One offers us an enduring satisfaction.“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink,” says Jesus, and he will “never be thirsty again” (John 7:37; 4:14).
The painful and complex story of Anthony Bourdain is a cautionary tale: the pursuit of pleasure, whether exotic or common, with all of its allure, will only leave us empty and alone. Set out on a quest to taste all the exotic flavors this world has to offer, and it will only leave you hungrier than you were before you began.
Jarod Thomas is media and communications manager for the General Conference Ministerial Department.