Anthony Bourdain and The Vulnerability of Compassion

I’m going out on a limb here with what I am about to write. So I hope you the reader treats this with utmost softness that you can amass.

When Anthony Bourdain’s death-suicide hit the news and airwaves yesterday, I purposefully tried not to engage the topic because it hits closer to home to me than I’d have liked. So I purposefully tried to immerse myself in things of love and fulfillment all day. Went to the Afa Ajura Mosque to pray Jummah, visited my best friend Ibrahim at work, visited my brother’s friend Mr. Hassan, and his children whom I used to tutor Maths and English before I left for the US. But I deliberately avoided visiting my mom for obvious reasons which I will get to below.

There’s different kinds of people in the world and one of these kinds are sensitive and compassion driven people. I believe that I fall in this category of people in much the same way as Anthony Bourdain. Our sensitivity to the other people’s suffering is often ridiculed and praised in equal measure, especially when we are men. But what I want to highlight is the vulnerability that comes with this and how that is a difficult personality to have in contemporary society so devoted to the elevation of the me over the other or individual over the group. This conundrum presents an immense mental health challenge to our personality types because our ability to compartmentalize is very limited.

Anthony Bourdain, simply put, was a person who cared about others, who treated others like he’d love to be treated, and who at his core saw the humanity in others. With a world devoted to individualism and tribal allegiance, cutting through the group allegiance borders, to see and acknowledge the humanity of others can be alienating given that group identity often requires levels of dehumanizing of non-group members. When you are faced with the inability to cut through this and help people in need, people obviously and clearly betrayed by the world, it can have serious weight on your mental health.

If you watched his cooking shows, you can see his happiness when other people ate and enjoyed his meals because for people like us, our sense of fulfillment comes in our ability to make others happy, as well as the kinds of loving bonds we build with others. Whenever I cook, I am eager to share the meal with my friends. That is the first thing that comes into my mind when I make a meal. And my friends will testify that I am always inviting them over to come eat, and there’s a reason for it.

When I first got to the US for my PhD program, I was buoyed by the experience of discovering the new city and program and people. By the beginning of my second semester, that newness had worn off and I started seriously missing my best friend Ibrahim and my mom and other friends in Ghana. I went through a serious bout of depression, and by the end of my second year and beginning of third year, my then supervisor to be Dr. Perry noticed this and recommended I go to student counseling. She actually picked up the phone and called the office to get me an appointment. It was easy for the psychiatrist to see what was going on with me. I had lost contact with most of the people I loved and cared for and was going through serious depression. She recommended a lot of things including trying to make more friends and others. That’s how I ended up beginning to cook more.

The way graduate school is, most people are loners because we are inundated with work that require us to be hermetic. My friends were basically hi hi friends here and I started to lose my sense of purpose. Coupled with the incessant negative news in the US media (especially the wanton killing of black folk), I literally felt like there was no point in living. I remember going to the office one day and about to cross the road and thinking: why don’t I just ran in front of the road into the oncoming cars? What’s the point of being here? Two main things prevented me from doing it: 1 My mom and 2. I wasn’t sure 100% I’ll actually succeed in dying. Thinking about how much it will hurt my mother stopped me from committing suicide that day.

I don’t know exactly what Anthony Bourdain’s personal life was like this week but for people like us, love is the only cure for possible suicide in this current society we live in. Without my mom’s love, I’d literally have had nothing to stop me from killing myself. Because I want to make her happy, and I know she was going to be devastated if I went through with it, I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t.

Earlier this week, I posted about the wanton killing of Palestinians by the Israeli Defense Forces not necessarily because I share much in common with the Palestinians but because we all share in one humanity and this require us to love and care for one another no matter how different we are. Anthony Bourdain showed similar empathy for the Palestinians and many other oppressed communities in the world. But more importantly, he was committed to putting smiles on the faces of others. That is what he was. And I will not speculate why he took his own life but I know that I am like him, and we need a lot of social support to keep on living because we are very vulnerable to mental health issues and suicide.

People usually talk about independence and self sufficiency but I know that I am not independent. My happiness depends on the happiness of others and my fulfillment depends on how much I can help others get fulfilled in their lives daily. That is why I decided that I wanted to become a teacher (Professor). Today my mother and a couple of friends fill those holes in my heart and soul. I pray to God that I will find a partner who would love and appreciate her role in my life after my mom is gone. I pray that we all have our support systems who would encourage us and help us through our depression times and offer us the opportunity to love them and be fulfilled. And I pray that society’s authorities step up on support for mental health issues. And may we be able to keep amazing souls like Anthony Bourdain and prevent further suicide!

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