Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Good Food is Not Enough

Celebrity chef, food writer, and CNN travel star Anthony Bourdain committed suicide Friday, June 9, 2018.  His death came as a complete shock--its suddenness as well as the manner by which it came.  Coupled with the suicide of celebrity handbag designer Kate Spade earlier the same week, Bourdain's death ignited a firestorm of discussion:  signs of depression and suicide, what to say in conversation or public speaking events, the morality of taking one's life, etc.

Then Dusty Gates posted this in Crisis magazine:  "Good Food is Not Enough."

A hard post--Gates doesn't shy away from some technical theological language, nor does he shy away from the reality that suicide is, at the bottom of it all, a failure.  So several people I know, and for anybody reading this, perhaps you and several people you know, won't like it.  I think that's fair.  Still, Gates makes some good points worth considering.  Gates:

Another reason that Mr. Bourdain didn’t appear to be a man struggling with depression or despair is that he seemed to be truly in touch with goodness, in several concrete ways. He appreciated good food, good drink, good music, good scenery, good friends. He appreciated good culture, and thought it worth preserving and celebrating. He seemed to have a friend in each location he visited, and he appeared to truly relish the opportunity to sit with them, eat together, and talk. Maybe it was all a show, and they were just actors following a script. But it sure didn’t seem that way. Though sarcastic and critical, Bourdain left the impression of a man who placed value on the good things that the world had to offer. He seemed to advocate time and money being well spent on good and enjoyable things. There is still a big step left to be taken, however, between experiencing good things and experiencing goodness itself, and a supernatural bridge is needed to span the gap.

And an instance that might prompt some to take a step back:

St. Augustine gives us insight into the delicate balance in which beauty must be held by the human mind. His own interior battle with carnality and his resulting distrustful, questioning disposition towards the senses allow Augustine to guide us through a detailed description of how experiences of natural beauty and sensible goodness work upon a person’s intellect and will. His Confessions present us with a nuanced discussion of how things like food, art, and music are interpreted, and how they can move us (either towards or away from God), or, in other cases, appear to do nothing at all. Augustine considers, for example, the different affect which beauty has on the one who merely sees, and the one who sees and inquires: “Beauty appears in the same way to both beholders,” says Augustine, “but to one it is dumb, and to the other it speaks. Or rather, it speaks to all, but only they understand who test the voice heard outwardly against the truth within.”
In a reflection on the potential for creation to participate in the sole divinity of God, Augustine relates to his reader a vision he had of himself encountering a host of created things, and inquiring of each of them whether or not they were the rightful recipients of his love: “They denied me: ‘We are not the God you seek.’ And to all things which stood around the portals of my flesh I said, ‘Tell me of my God. You are not he, but tell me something of him.’ Then they lifted up their mighty voices and cried, ‘He made us.’ My questioning was my attentive spirit, and their reply, their beauty.”

Personally, I think St. Augustine's helpful in precisely these sorts of situations.  It wasn't as if the Bishop of Hippo lived a soft, cushy life free of strains and anxieties.  St. Augustine wrote so much about sin because he had sinned quite a lot already.  He knew that of which he wrote.  Still, I know St. Augustine often turns people off.

Here's the turn in Gates' argument:

Anthony Bourdain’s death was a reminder that good food is not enough. Good atmosphere, good conversation, and good meals can take us a long way towards joy. But they are never substitutes for joy. Those things only give us true joy if they are accompanied, or, perhaps more accurately, preceded by a relationship with the Lord who gives us all these good things, and provides them with their significance. Our God ought not be our stomachs, as St. Paul reminds us, as does Dante in his description of the poor souls in his Inferno. Chaucer’s Pardoner goes so far as to claim that gluttony is the root of all other sins. Our food might help us to be joyful and can lead us towards the higher goods, but only if we recognize that it is food for the journey—a mysterious foretaste of milk and honey like that of the Israelites in the desert—and not an end in itself.

Read it all here.

The problem and reality of suicide has occupied more of my thoughts in 2018.  Bourdain and Spade's suicides finally provided the push I needed to get some blogging, any blogging, done.  Steve Webb's suicide in 2016 has remained a stumbling block over which I've continued to, well, stumble.  Obviously more people knew of Bourdain than Webb, but both were exceptionally successful and both demonstrated a relish for life--the world and the people therein--rendered tragic by the circumstances of their deaths.

There's also more.  In 2011 Bourdain's show No Reservations featured an episode where he sampled the life and food of the Missouri Ozarks. He fished at night, fried potatoes, shot and cooked ducks and ate greasy spaghetti in a Joplin, Missouri, bar.  Here's Bourdain from that show, showing off his squirrel-skinning skills:
Image result for Bourdain Ozarks

Source: Share TV (and Google)

Bourdain's death prompted a wave of reflection as various groups--professional chefs, the CNN staff, the various locations Bourdain visited, and even Barack Obama--spoke about Bourdain's zeal and sudden absence.  

Turns out it's not just celebrities.  Suicide rates are up noticeably in the past decade for all demographics.  Farmers, facing financial crises that rivals those of the 1980s that drove so many farmers to foreclosure, are especially susceptible. Both Bourdain and American farmers, each in their own ways, seemed so immune to such despair and yet they fell prey.  As she always does, Elizabeth Scalia writes poignantly and persuasively:

Why do we think so little of ourselves and our humanity?
This is a core question, not a frivolous one, and it cannot be answered as glibly as some might like. Because we fear the question, though, and because we desperately want to make sense of horror when we encounter it, we try to make a fast response that seems to address it—mostly so we can compartmentalize the mystery and not have to think about it.
Thus, after the Spade and Bourdain suicides we heard, Well, depression; heres a hotline number,” which helped some tidy up the issue in their minds so they could move on. But studies and researchers have determined that suicides, or suicidal ideation, are not exclusive to those suffering from depression or ongoing mental illness. Fear, anxiety, trauma, a loss of hope, a lack of trustworthy human outreach, deep loneliness, despair—all of these can come into play in suicide, and a one-liner cant be the answer.
So, it was disturbing to see some Christian voices—some Catholics among them—suggesting that if only Spade or Bourdain had embraced a life of faith as fully as some of us, why, they wouldn't have killed themselves, because theyd know the joy of the Lord.
Its a terrible charge to make against another; its right up there with saying that if only one had enough faith, one would never become ill. You might as well say that if only one had enough faith, one would never sin—something said by no saint, ever.
In fact, the saints attest to the truth that darkness can, and usually does, visit all of us at one time or another. In the stories of their lives, we see that knowing Christ, even knowing the Lord as intimately as we may through the Eucharist and prayer and service, does not preclude us from losing heart, becoming confused, imagining that we are alone, unloved, and unlovable, and feeling forgotten or bereft of all friendship. In her letters, we read Mother Teresas writing of my pain and suffering, my darkness and separation. The woman had faith—she knew she possessed the love of God—yet she experienced feelings of abandonment and unloveable disposability.

Read all of her post here.

She's onto something here, and yes it involves the same St. Augustine of Hippo Dusty Gates discussed.  Pelagius' great criticism, which as I've grown older I've come to realize has some merit, of Augustine was this (roughly):  "God helps those who help themselves."  And obviously a chunk of Aristotelian and thus Thomistic ethics hinge on something like this.  Virtue becomes a habit.  Being good means becoming good, which you do through doing good.  But Scalia, like Augustine, puts her finger right on the raw nerve of this argument: when simplified this becomes something like "you're not trying hard enough."  Suicides like Spade, Bourdain, and Webbs reveal just how flaccid and thin that argument is.   Doing good isn't always easy, which doesn't mean we don't do it. Still, if Christian mercy is to mean anything at all, we also need to take it easy on ourselves and others when maybe it appears that we/they are slacking off. 

So again, prayer--for ourselves and others.  The Church recently celebrated the feast day for the Compiegne martyrs, sixteen Carmelite sisters guillotined in 1794 during the Reign of Terror.  Carmelite spirituality cultivates its practitioners to pray for others, especially those who otherwise might draw God's ire.  Those sixteen sisters, who went to their deaths singing the Te Deum, thus possessed a framework for their lives, prayers, and deaths that extended beyond themselves.  We all might benefit from a little of that Mount Carmel spiritual self-sacrifice these days.  It's clear that so many people need our help--in the physical world and also the spiritual.  It's a little like the reverse of the Flannery O'Connor story title:  "The Life You Save Might NOT Be  Your Own."

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