In General

The question “why?” has been reverberating through my head.

This past week, many of us experienced a stunned sadness. The suicides of two celebrities, Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, left us wondering what happened. What did we miss?

The Bourdain and Spade suicides have opened up new questions about my assumptions about dream careers.

Bourdain and Spade had achieved significant success. They were at the top of their fields. They were engaged in work that they were passionate about.

They had fame. They had fortune.

They had somehow figured out their unique talents and were fully expressing them to create positive impact for so many.

They had family and friends who loved them and fans who adored them.

The place they reached is the place many of us aspire to. For many of us, isn’t the dream to find our passion? To connect with our talents? To live our passions out loud? To impact others positively? To love and be loved? To find work that is not just a paycheck but fills us? Isn’t this what self-actualization is about? I imagine nirvana lives just on the other side of self-actualization. Does it?

At the height of what seemed on the outside were enviable lives well lived, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain chose to end it all.

I am not a mental health expert. I can’t even begin to fathom what was going through their minds when they made the decision to leave. But, here are some questions that are going through my mind this week. I urge us to reflect on these questions as we go about pursuing our dream careers:

Most of us assume that we will be happy when (fill in the blank). The fill in the blank can be the next achievement, the corner office, the success of the side gig, the perfect partner. What if we will not be happy “when”?

I imagine both Bourdain and Spade experienced some sense of emptiness or despair. As we go about pursuing dreams important to us, what are the just-beneath-the-surface moments of emptiness we feel? What is the emptiness we avoid? What do we seek on the outside to fill that emptiness?

Suicide rates have increased by 25% in the last 20 years. Almost always, loved ones are surprised. Who are the people that we can reach out to help us when we feel despair? Who are the people in our lives we can reach out to, to be of help? What are the signs we need to be aware of?

There is still too much shame around mental health issues. How do we as a society and as individuals stop hiding behind masks of perfect Facebook-worthy lives? How do we acknowledge our humanity to others in a vulnerable way? How do we create the space for others to share what’s not perfect in their lives?

What is the cost to us of creating a public persona that is all about the positive? Success. Fun. Fame. Adventure. How painful and lonely must be the discord between the real experience of emptiness and the image of fullness that we feel we must display to the world.

What if our assumptions about the pursuit of the dream that will ultimately make us happy and successful are wrong? What if there is a dark underbelly of the human experience in each of us that we’re missing as we seek self-actualization? What would it be like to claim that dark underbelly? To accept that we are each flawed and that may never change? To accept that there is less within our control than we would like to accept?

Would our dreams be different if they emerged from an acknowledgment of our imperfections and most painful emotions?

I imagine that each one of us will have different answers to these questions. I leave you with a quote from Bourdain in celebration of being curious: “That without experimentation, a willingness to ask questions and try new things, we shall surely become static, repetitive, moribund.”

What are the questions you have as you process the passing of Bourdain and Spade? I welcome your thoughts and reflections.

A version of this post first appeared in my Forbes leadership blog.

 

Showing 10 comments
  • Terri Carlton
    Reply

    I think we have become afraid to be curious and additionally, intolerant of acceptance. The empowerment of both curiosity and acceptance is lost to many people.

    • Henna Inam
      Reply

      Hi Terri –

      Thanks for joining the conversation. Yes, there is a lot of shame because we judge ourselves, and fear others’ judgment. I hope in the aftermath of this pain, we as a society become more tolerant and accepting of those with mental health issues.

      Henna

  • Natasha
    Reply

    I think this is a reminder that you can have all the external or extrinsic success in the world, but if you are struggling internally with major emotional and/or psychological pain, all the external, material success will not cure that pain. A pretty house does not always make a happy home. I think both Bourdain and Spade were struggling with inner demons that were not well known to others unless one was intimately involved with them. From what I read, one or both of them may have suffered from major forms of depression for years, and it was known to those close to them. Perhaps their struggles can teach us that external success does not always mean you have it all.

    Both Bourdain and Spade probably had very fast-paced, hard-driving careers. Bourdain traveled a lot internationally, and Spade created a multimillion-dollar fashion empire. Sometimes that type of busyness makes it hard for people to sit down and therapeutically heal because they are on such a constant treadmill until the soul is in such great despair that they feel there is no other recourse but to release themselves of their pain. I really do wish their souls peace and healing from the despair they may have been suffering deep down.

    • Henna Inam
      Reply

      Hi Natasha –

      Thanks for joining the conversation. Yes, I truly hope these souls have found some peace. I hope their passing at least serves to wake the rest of us up to a better understanding of and support for those who suffer from mental health issues.

      Henna

  • Roseanne
    Reply

    Henna, these words struck me…”How do we as a society and as individuals stop hiding behind masks of perfect Facebook-worthy lives? How do we acknowledge our humanity to others in a vulnerable way? How do we create the space for others to share what’s not perfect in their lives?” We are the most socially connected of any generation, and yet we are also the most isolated.

    The reason people feel an emptiness at some point in their lives is because they have lost their connection with our creator – with God. We can’t fill this emptiness with facebook posts and likes, with big houses and flashy cars, with plastic surgery, alcohol, drugs, entertainment, or endless consumerism. Our purpose in life is to know, love, and serve the Lord. God want us to achieve – of course he does! He gave us certain gifts to use, for good or for evil, and he also gave us free will.

    We are all vulnerable, flawed, and imperfect human beings, but we are also loved by the most perfect creator, and we are blessed to be here on earth. This life is temporal. We have life everlasting, fulfillment, and hope when we understand our purpose – to know, love, and serve the Lord.

    • Henna Inam
      Reply

      Hi Roseanne –

      Thanks for joining the conversation. While many of us practice different religions, my own experience is that a sense of deeper contentment is found when we connect with something bigger than ourselves. People have different names for this (Spirit, Universe, Higher Self, God, Nature, etc). And yes, there is a sense of emptiness when that connection is lost.

      Several people have written to me since I published this post sharing more about the state of mind people experience when they are depressed. They experience no hope – and likely from this place have a hard time connecting with something bigger than themselves. May these two souls rest in peace.

      Henna

  • David Langiulli
    Reply

    Regarding suicide, Epictetus in his Discourses reminds us that “The door is always open.” For me when the game of life seems no longer worth playing, the open door is very appealing. And then, I remember the deep connection to my spouse, children, and good friends (including Henna). I’ve faced that threshold many times in my mind’s eye and chosen life. In those moments, making the choice for life is a conscious effort. I am keenly aware (with the suicide of my own sister) that others can and do make a different choice.

    • Henna Inam
      Reply

      Hi David –

      Thank you for sharing yourself so vulnerably. Wow! I had no idea that you have struggled with this choice. We have actually had very personal conversations. I do hope that we all get to a point where we can share more openly our struggles…so that each of us who stands on the threshold of that choice can instead connect with a loved one about their struggle.

      Thank you for your friendship and your sharing. I value you so much for who you are and who you choose to be…even when those choices seem daunting.

      Hugs to you David!

      Henna

  • Karin Jones
    Reply

    All I can say, is thanks Henna for the post. Having 3 depressed family members (my husband, son and daughter) in my family — I am often worried about them — and do agree that it is the connection to a higher spirit that helps clarify life for me… I know my husband often connect with a higher power and this enriches and helps him. My kids are both teens/young adult (15 year old daughter) and (20 year old transgender daughter) and both struggle with their demons but have less resources with connecting with a higher power. My transgender young adult is an anarchist autistic person and thus rejects religion — and I am personally not religious but definitely spiritual. For my 15 year old there is still an opportunity for helping her find that connection but she is pretty much her own person at this point… I too struggle with my own demons, but I think that is your point…that perhaps looking at a a self-actualization model that doesn’t preclude our darker sides… I love my work (running an African safari company, which includes traveling to the most amazing places and helping others do the same) but after 31 years there are times when I still feel empty –especially traveling there on my own without my partner to ever share it with…and moving too fast (as it is typically on quick paced site inspection trips) to be able to slow down and enjoy the beauty of Africa… I do love sending other people there and hope to have time there in the future that moves slower…but at the end of the day, it’s not all about where I go — but that connection, and I can feel it also just on a daily basis, walking my dog in our lovely tree-lined neighborhood, feeling the early dawn breeze and reflecting… even though we all are experiencing pain, I can still feel that vital connection.

    • Henna Inam
      Reply

      Karin –

      As I sit here reading your post, I have tears in my eyes. Tears for your pain and somehow also tears for your courage. Your sharing has so deeply touched me.

      Life is all of it, isn’t it? Pain, struggle, connection, emptiness, transcendent moments, simple pleasures. I hope we can each expand our capacity to accept and embrace all of it. I would like to share with you and the other readers a private message that I got when I first posted this. It is from someone who experiences depression and I hope that it touches you as it touched me. Here is her message below:

      “Hi Henna,

      I read your post on suicides @Forbes.

      You talk about shame but the way I see it, shame is not the reason for the depressed not to seek help. I am depressed and I have sometimes had suicidal thoughts (although I will never kill myself). Shame has nothing to do with any of this.

      The reason for depressed people not to get help is that when you are depressed, there is absolutely no hope . And when there is no hope, there cannot be any help, either.

      You see, when you are depressed, words lose their meaning. You sink into a dark nothingness. In total darkness you don´t see anything. The only thing you experience is pain.

      I don´t know why Kate and Anthony killed themselves. But I am pretty sure shame wasn´t the reason.

      I send you a piece I just wrote. You find it below this msg. Its a letter to someone who wants to kill herself. Please read it if you have time. Maybe it gives you some insights.

      Thank you for your compassionate words.

      Here’s the letter she refers to:

      If you want to kill yourself, read this

      Life is really one
      Precious gift
      But sometimes I feel that
      It has been given to the wrong person.

      This is a poem the very well-known and successful Chinese photographer Ren Hang wrote before he jumped off the balcony and died.

      Hang´s poem makes total sense to me. Life is incredibly, unbearably, painfully precious. And like Hang, I would be more than happy to give mine away. Right now.

      But I don´t.

      And I suggest you don´t, either.

      Let me tell you something about myself.

      I am a 59-year-old divorced woman. When my long marriage ended a few years ago quite unexpectedly, I did what many life coaches and New Age Gurus tell you to do: I left everything and followed my dreams.

      I sold my share of our house to my ex, quit working, and started writing.

      I had always wanted to write. So, since my life as I knew it had ended, I decided to start a new one.

      I have since published two books. I have written many many blogposts.

      I almost made it.

      But not quite.

      I have not managed to make a living with my writing. I have very little money in the bank and no ideas how to make any. I have no job. No spouse. No plans. No energy.

      But there is one thing I do have. Pain.

      And here´s another thing: The Pain stays no matter what.

      When I got my first book deal, the Pain stepped back for a little while, only to reappear later with even more vigor. The same thing happened when I got the second book deal.

      The Pain is here not because I failed. I failed because of the Pain.

      I am so tired with the Pain. I have spent hours, lying in darkness, begging it to leave. And because it hasn´t, I have wanted to leave myself.

      But I didn’t.

      And I suggest you don’t, either.

      I am not saying things will get better. Things might get worse. I might very well end up becoming a homeless bag lady. And Goddess only knows what might happen to you.

      All I know is that I am not a homeless bag lady now and whatever it is that might happen to you, has not happened.

      I am asking you to hang in there because I am hanging in here. I know we can both do it because we are doing it, right now.

      And Right Now is all that ever matters.

      Right Now, we are both enduring the pain. It is terrible and horrible, but we are enduring it.

      Why should we endure it? Is life full of pain really worth living?

      Here´s a thing about life: there is no such thing. Life is a period of time between birth and death. It consists of moments. Such as this one. We can never really fuck up our lives because there is nothing to fuck up.

      And while there is nothing to fuck up, there most certainly is something.

      Here´s how I see it: instead of Life there is something that keeps things going. The Chinese call it Qi. The Indians call it Prana. The Christians call it the Holy Ghost. Whatever it is, it flows like a stream. It has its own will. It goes wherever it wants to. We can either go with the flow and suffer or we can try to swim upstream and suffer even more.

      It is futile to try to make the Pain go away. Trust me, I have tried. Everything. I have read the Secret. I have made vision boards. I took a shaman course. I have tried energy, theta and you name it healing. I have repeated affirmations. I have meditated. I have walked the Camino.

      The more I try make the Pain go away, the tighter its grab.

      I have studied enough spirituality to know that the Pain is just an illusion, the way everything is. But I don’t want to go there now because the Pain feels very real. It may not be here but it sure as hell feels like it is.

      I heard the shamans tame bad things by naming them. I have found this helpful. I call my Pain George. I know George is here to stay. It is like an annoying relative who has moved in with me, never to leave. George has a room in my house. But that’s not enough for George. He wants the whole house. He wants me out.

      But I am not going.

      Why?

      I partly blame the Swedish writer Kajsa Ingermarsson for my stubborn determination to hang in here.

      In her novel Någonstans inom oss (Somewhere inside us) Ingermarsson tells a story of a woman who wants to die. She jumps off a bridge, only to find herself in a weird limbo. She doesn’t know if she is dead or alive. She can see her loved ones living their lives, but they don´t see her. She screams but no one hears.

      Ingermarsson´s book scared me witless. We know about life, but we know nothing about death.

      What if things get even worse when we die?

      You can always end your life, but can you end your death?

      Scary, huh?

      Ultimately, I guess, we want to die because we want to let go. At least I do. But can we let go without dying?

      Just think about these words for a second. Letting go. Allowing things to fall apart. Allowing ourselves to fall apart. Allowing us to fall.

      Falling feels wonderful, right?

      Here´s something else I know for sure: when you allow yourself to fall, Qi/Prana/whatever will catch you. Sounds totally crazy but I have found many crazy things to be true.

      Byron Katie has said that you don’t so much live as you are lived. You don’t breath, you are breathed. You don’t walk, you are walked. You don´t love. You are loved.

      Think about this for a second.

      I am not asking you not to die because you will die, eventually, and so will I.

      I am asking you to hang in there because I am hanging in here, just for a little longer. Just until what lives us now, doesn’t live us anymore.

      Let´s do this together.

      We can do it because we are doing it.

      So please, hang in there.

      Hang in there.

      Hang in there, so that I don’t have to hang in here alone.

      With love,

      (Name kept private), your Partner in Pain

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