Why Anthony Bourdain and Robin Williams Committed Suicide?: A Sociological Reflection

A Short Reflection on Suicide, Social Integration, Popularity, and Spirituality

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Photo Source: news.com.au

Introduction

The  news about the death and suicide of the famous actor and comedian Robin Williams has shocked the world.

The death of the famous celebrity chef, CNN TV host, and best-selling author Anthony Bourdain in an apparent suicide has, again, shocked the world.

 

People find it hard to accept that the smiling and happy face of their favorite celebrity that they often see on television screens is a lonely and unhappy person in real life despite wealth, fame, and success!

If this quotation of Williams is accurate and can be used to gauge his true state of mind before his death, then one can sense that he is indeed a lonely person, alone and unhappy with people who surrounded him! He may have friends and loved ones encircling him but the quality of his interaction with them may have deteriorated from personal and intimate to a more contractual and impersonal type. The apparent case of suicide of Robin Williams and Anthony Bourdain illustrates that once a person loses his/her intimate bonding with his/her own social groups in society, s/he faces the risk of depression and suicide, especially when serious personal problems strike him/her. Williams and Bourdain are just two of the growing number of rich and famous celebrities who lived lonely lives in a complex capitalist environment and ended their life because of social isolation and meaninglessness.

Productivity and Meaning of Life in Capitalist Society

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Because of social alienation, there is a higher rate of suicide in urban societies than in rural communities. In an urban and capitalist society, there is a tendency to equate the ultimate meaning of life with the person’s accomplishments and achievements. Productivity is an important value and criteria of success in capitalism. One must earn high income, achieve economic goals or forecasts and attain steady growth in one’s career or business in order to make life meaningful. Indeed, this type of life project is attractive and worth fighting for. But the problem is that people are not divine beings and are, therefore, vulnerable to contingencies of life such as unexpected serious illness, crime, economic downturn, bankruptcy, or social isolation from their own social groups which support and nurture their desires to achieve and to be productive in the marketplace of life. When the isolation and pressure of life become unbearable, some people resort to dangerous drugs, sex, alcohol, gambling, pills, and other palliatives, making them detached from their own groups of relatives, colleagues and friends, and vulnerable to suicide as a permanent solution to their temporary problems.

When James Whalethe director of the famous films like ‘Frankenstein’, ‘The Invisible Man’, ‘The Old Dark House’ etc. committed suicide, he left the following suicide note which revealed the struggle of a lonely soul in agony:

To ALL I LOVE,
“Do not grieve for me. My nerves are all shot and for the last year I have been in agony day and night—except when I sleep with sleeping pills—and any peace I have by day is when I am drugged by pills.
“I have had a wonderful life but it is over and my nerves get worse and I am afraid they will have to take me away. So please forgive me, all those I love and may God forgive me too, but I cannot bear the agony and it [is] best for everyone this way.
“The future is just old age and illness and pain. Goodbye and thank you for all your love. I must have peace and this is the only way.”
“Jimmy”

(Source: http://spotonlists.com/history/top-10-famous-people-who-committed-suicide/)

Why People Commit Suicide?

The French sociologist Emile Durkheim has an interesting theory on why people commit suicide—the social integration theory. This theory sees the connection between social 

integration and the risk of suicide. It simply states that people who are socially attached to their social groups are less likely to commit suicide than those who are detached from their own groups in society. Those who lack social bonding with their own families, friends, and relatives are prone to commit egoistic suicide when they encounter serious problem or crisis in life. Social detachment denies people of communal support which is necessary for the helpless to overcome loneliness and the risk of self-destruction.

Depression may be the proximate cause of suicide but the ultimate cause is the loss of communal bonding and support. Extreme depression is the result of social isolation and detachment from one’s social group. Serious personal trouble can be bearable if one has a supportive family and group of friends who are willing to empathize and extend various forms of assistance to a lonely celebrity.

Popularity, Social Isolation and Suicide

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It has been said that it is lonely at the top. To be famous and rich has its own drawbacks, especially if the famous person has a weak communal bonding with his/her own circle of friends and relatives. As a person increases in popularity, s/he loses gradually his/her privacy and capacity to mingle and interact with ordinary people, resulting in a growing social isolation. A popular person is usually placed in a pedestal by followers and fans with the aid of social and digital media which confer on him/her a celebrity status. Once installed at the top like a monument, his or her social interaction becomes limited. S/he limits his/her mobility. S/he cannot just move around without being mobbed by fans. Thus, s/he prefers to interact mainly with people who share the same social position with him/her—the rich, famous, and powerful–but not with the poor, unknown, and ordinary people.

Followers and adoring fans would look up to the famous person with admiration and praise–as idols, heroes, and role models, making them superhuman and special from the rest of the crowd. And since society has a social stratification which classifies people according to the amount of wealth and level of social status, the celebrity, therefore, has no choice but to interact more often with people of similar social stature or with his/her own circle of relatives and friends for social support and bonding. And if s/he has a dysfunctional family and social groups, the famous person is tempted to resort to palliatives such as drugs, sleeping pills, or alcohol to temporarily escape from his/her personal troubles.The social isolation, however, grows and the risk of suicide increases!

Does this imply that people should not aim for excellence, popularity, and leadership to avoid the danger of suicide?

The Need for Intimate Social Bonding and Spirituality

It does not follow that once a person becomes popular and attains a celebrity status s/he is automatically on the road to self-destruction or suicide. Of course, the danger is always there. But a famous and powerful person can avoid the predicament of some popular celebrities who killed themselves if s/he nurtures his/her intimate social bonding with his/her own family, relatives, and friends. The trick is to find quality time with your loved ones despite hectic schedule and growing popularity. One must not allow wealth, power and popularity to reach one’s head. The temptation to indulge with pleasure and fame and forget one’s loved ones is a sure formula to loneliness and suicide.

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Furthermore, a celebrity must not only enhance his/her bonding with his/her own social groups. S/he must also possess and nurture some form of spirituality or religiosity to protect his/her self against egoism and vicissitudes of life. Without some kind of supernatural force or belief that guards one’s life against excesses and hedonism, a famous and powerful person can one day find himself/herself lost, isolated, and dead. Spirituality can become a stabilizing factor to the complex urban life of the rich and famous. Seeing one’s current life in relation to one’s ultimate meaning and goal in life is indispensable for celebrities and achievers in order for them to attain humility, peace and equilibrium in front of screaming fans, flashing cameras, and online social media screen. Spirituality and humility or knowing where you come from and where you are going to in life is an antidote to meaninglessness, despair, and suicide. The Nobel Peace Prize winner Mother Teresa of Calcutta says:“If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.”