Stephen Jenkinson: Living And Dying With Meaning The powerful lessons grief & dying teach us about life

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A lengthy audio interview (followed by a transcript) with Stephen Jenkinson

On this site we discuss the large predicament the world faces. A question that often arises, especially at our annual seminar is: Given these challenges, how should I be? What outlook and behaviors will better help me meet what’s coming?

This week’s podcast gets quite existential. Chris sits down with Stephen Jenkinson, an author and thinker who a number of Peak Prosperity readers have requested come on the show. Stephen Jenkinson’s specialization is grief and dying — through his decades of work in these fields, he has developed a series of observations on what it means to live, and thereby die, with meaning.

A heads up: the path of this conversation is somewhat metaphysical and may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But the topics addressed are important; ones our society needs to start having some honest discussion about. Things like how to face our mistakes, errors and shortcomings openly — as with addiction, only with acknowledgement and acceptance of our condition can we then move on to self-betterment.

Stephen Jenkinson observes how, culturally, we are so averse to unpleasantness that we suppress the very conditions that are necessary for positive transformation:

The hearing in the popular culture goes something like this: Get good at grief so you can get on the other side of it, so you don’t have to do it anymore. That’s what getting good at grief is, even like having a good relationship with this grief, so it won’t bite you in the ass too badly, kind of thing.

I am saying that grief is, in and of itself, a skillfulness of being a human being. It is not something you have a relationship with. It is that which in a deeply disciplined way, you practice. You’re partly being pursued by it at times, both of which has hopefully the purpose of a deep kind of introduction that you cannot turn away from again. Because it has made a claim upon you and it has the order of necessity about it, not the order of affliction. So it’s not a matter of declawing and defanging grief until it sits quietly in your lap like a poodle. Not at all, no. Grief is a human-scaled mystery. That is what it is.

In medieval times, in northern Europe in particular, in the monastic life, there are stations that you awaken through the course of the evening, deep into the night, and into the early dawn, where you are at different layers of prayer and contemplation and so on. I am told that one of the contemplative exercises for those people in that time was to say in a kind of chanting fashion, a Latin term, lacrimae rerum, which translates fairly readily for us as “the tears that are in all things”. They would not say it in order to dry the tears that are in all things, they would say it so that it could be known, that the deep facts of life require endings in order for things to proceed. This insight visits human beings as an awareness of your end before your end actually comes: the possibility of you deepening your life as a direct consequence of realizing how fundamentally limited it is in time, and in consequence, and in import.

What life is, is oftentimes tormenting, broken, a place where as my countryman who has recently died said, a crack where the light gets in. and that’s it. So, to be deeply intolerant of limits, essentially dooms you to a project of unrestrained, unfettered, and untethered growth.

If your project is to live a mutually nourishing life, then to be restrained in that regard is to be disciplined so that your capacities serve something. And in so doing, you recognize how much on the receiving end of being served you have been. Which is of course what our childhood is for. And the ending of our childhood is often accomplished by recognizing how deeply on the take we have been without ever recognizing it. And sometimes you get to live long enough where you can go…where you can turn to your parent and you can say, I’m sorry, I had no idea for the longest time. And of course your parent would probably say, yeah, I know. And there it is, at the level of family.

Well, what kind of planetary being can we turn to now and say, I’m sorry; I had no idea?

Click the play button below to listen to Chris’ interview with Stephen Jenkinson (73m:46s).


Chris Martenson: Welcome to this peak prosperity podcast, I am your host, Chris Martenson and it is November 29, 3016.

These are troubled times and people know this deep down. At Peak Prosperity, we say that these times and how you fair through them will be defined by three things: what you do, what you know, and how you are. Those are your actions, your wisdom, and the way in which you inhabit your life. And it’s that last part that’s slipperiest for most people, the being of it all. It raises the age-old question, how should I be?

Now, this is no small question, it’s almost part of the human condition, but perhaps never more so than in a time like the present, where one’s main cultural narratives seem to be falling apart. Our main narrative of endless, exponential, economic growth on a finite planet is not simply senseless, but quite possibly insane. At the very least, it is crazy making, because we all know deep down on some level that we are a part of, not apart from, nature. Yet we are all participants on this spaceship Earth, and for the most part, neither the crew nor the majority of the passengers seem to be even slightly aware of the major predicaments we face.

Why is that? How has it come to be that we find ourselves in this particular condition? More personally, how many of you listening know that you are stuck between two lives, the one you are actually living, and the one you feel like you should be living instead. You know, the one that would align your authentic inner gifts with the present realities in a more meaningful and fulfilling way. Now these are profoundly philosophical questions and I am really pleased to be able to introduce today Stephen Jenkinson, who I had the deep honor of sitting with at Rowe for a weekend workshop just a few weeks ago.

Stephen teaches internationally and is the creator and principal instructor of the Orphan Wisdom School, founded in 2010. With master’s degrees from Harvard University in theology and the University of Toronto in Social Work, he is revolutionizing grief and dying in North America. Stephen is redefining what it means to live, and therefore die, well.

Apprentice to a master storyteller, he has worked extensively with dying people and their families. He was former program director in a major Canadian hospital, former assistant professor in a prominent Canadian medical school, and consultant to palliative care and hospice organizations. He is also a sculptor, a traditional canoe builder, and whose self-built house won a Governor General’s award for architecture. He is also a prolific author of books such as Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul. And the subject of the weekend workshop at Rowe, Money and the Soul’s Desires: A Meditation.

He has many other fine books and I will encourage everyone to obtain them and read them. Stephen Jenkinson is also the subject of the feature-length documentary film, Griefwalker, a lyrical and poetic portrait of his work with dying people, which had a very large impact on me as well as the dozens of people I have recommended or given it to. With that Stephen, welcome to the program.

Stephen Jenkinson: Thank you, Chris, a generous introduction; we will see if I resemble it in any way at all.

Chris Martenson: Let’s dive right in. You know, you have many beautiful interviews out there on your immense and thoughtful work in what you have called the death trade. And it is not my intent here to recreate those interviews, but perhaps to call upon those learnings when and how they seem appropriate. Instead, I seek your wisdom as a careful student of history to see what insights we might draw from the past to help us make sense of our times. Is that something you would be willing to do?

Stephen Jenkinson: Let’s give it a whirl.

Chris Martenson: Okay, well thank you for that. So, let’s start here, I’d like to get your reflections on a quote of yours followed by this question, as I think this will get us started in what I hope is the right direction. Here is the quote:

“Having a conscience now is a grief soaked proposition.” That is the quote, and my question is this, you use the word now in there. Historically speaking, is having a conscience always been a grief soaked proposition, or is there something about being alive now that is perhaps more troubling to the conscientious than in times past?

Stephen Jenkinson: Yeah, that is a well wrought question. Well, first of all, I’m not that old, so I don’t have centuries to draw from. I have not been in the trench, and the truth is that most people’s ordinary lives are the first casualties of any history that is written and conjectured, and traded back and forth. And of course, taught in school, so it’s a bit of a guess as to how people might have experienced the grind, if it was a grind. I will never forget, you have heard of the playwright Bertolt Brecht, he wrote a play called the Life of Galileo and in there, our Galileo is by this time under house arrest, church arrest, too for that matter, for having taught the way it was… what he could see through his tube.

And one of the visitors comes to him and in a collegial fashion he talks to him about why he’s being banished from promulgating what he’s seen through his telescope. And he gestures to the window, and you can see there are peasants in the fields out there working away. And he says to Galileo, you know, if you tell these people that they’re not the crown of creation, they’re not at the center of the universe, they’re not that around which the plan unfurls and uncoils, and they’re not the reason, but they’re on a bit of rock flying about and so on, and so on. How do you expect them to attend to the labor you see them doing right now?

It is a powerful thing to wonder about. It is a bit self-serving, obviously from the inquisitor’s point of view, but the reason I mention the story is to say how people might have understood what constitutes the world, or their place in it. In days gone by, I think it is really elusive to us, so it’s really proper that we not generalize from our predicaments, our lack of them, our mania for being out from under them as quickly and as sort of blindly as possible. With all of that in place, then let me see if I can do justice to the question that you asked.

To become awake, maybe that is another good word for conscience, to deeply awaken, to… I do not know if there is another kind, frankly. That might be redundant to say that, but to awaken is a very costly enterprise. How do you know this? I think you know it this way; if awakening were all it was cracked up to be, people would be doing it all the time, wouldn’t they? And there would be no reason for this ever to lapse. That you would be permanently and fixedly awake if it were such a compelling proposition as the purveyors of awakeness would have it be for us all.

So then, you realize, man, there is something in the architecture that mitigates against awakening. I am not saying conspiracy-wise, I am saying architecture. In other words, there might be something in the confluence of being a human being, or trying to be, or trying to imagine that there is such a thing on the one side. And doing so in the context of the living world whose livingness may or may not depend on our presence on the scene. But if we are present, its livingness may very well depend on our capacity to be human, by which I’m suggesting to you that it may be that being human is not a lifestyle option for human beings. It might be the most mandatory proposition going and not for our sake. That is the big one. That it might be in the nature of being a human being that your humanness is something you take on for the sake of that which sustains you; meaning the living world.

If you put all of that in and then we revisit the question a second time, then a little etymology is pretty useful right now to awake. Okay, the A prefix sometimes functions the same way the O prefix does in the English language. For example, for o’clock, it means of the clock, pertaining to the clock. And awake would meet in the manner of wake, and we know of wake as a noun in its several contortions. It means more than one thing. It means the trail, the ebb of consequence as you plow through your allotment in years, or in place, or in relationships. As you plow through those allotments, whatever fans out behind you is properly understood to be a wake.

And of course, the other version of wake is those who attend your demise and tell stories about you, some of which may be true, but are probably fashioned to be user friendly in a troubled time. Which is to say it is a deeply unreliable version of you that normally appears at your wake. And by which it would be very challenging for other people to plot a course based on a very selective version of yours.

I know this is more than you asked for, probably, but maybe the gist of it could be something like this. My MO these days is that humanity is an allegation, not a description. It is a rumor, and in some respects, it is a cruel rumor because it is such a fugitive and a phantom so, so often.

Then awakening is principally awakening to how fugitive one’s humanity really is, and how possible it is to so deeply betray it, even though it would appear to be something, which is called :ours.” But I’m suggesting it probably isn’t ours, even though humanity is entrusted to us, not as a personal possession, but in some kind of… In a way, that perhaps domestic animals on a farm are entrusted to you; that establishes a kind of covenantal way of proceeding — the two of you together. And maybe your humanity is something similar, that it asks much more of you than it would appear to give you.

If you awaken to that, and that is just the personal experience level, I do not know how the tone of your awakening could be anything other than a sob, frankly. And that a sob might be the operatic sound that awakening really calls for. Then, imagine that you are awakening in a time and a place, which as you said in your introduction, is so palpably troubled and troubling, that it is almost a compound fracture. To awaken in such a time and to actually make the case that your awakeness is more necessary now, when there is much less of a payday for it, than it might have been when the stakes were not so grim or so high. How to make such a case? How to go from city to city, or interview to interview and pitch this idea as somehow good for you.

I am not sure it is good for you as much as it might enable you towards a kind of goodness that is so counterintuitive that it asks… well, it asks the world of us, maybe.

Chris Martenson: That was very well said, and it is getting to the heart of what I want to get to. You said there is something in the architecture, maybe, that prevents this awakening process; and that architecture is cultural, which is the theme I really want to weave through here. Because this is ultimately what I and everybody is up against in this story; it is the culture. And so, knowing that’s a thorny thing that will weave its brambly way through this conversation, I’ll just set that aside for a minute and return to this idea that you just raised. Which is that we have two levels of awakening we maybe can come to. One is our own personal awakening that has probably always been part of the human condition, if I can conjecture and hypothesize.

And that’s part of the humanness of being human. And today there’s a special condition, which is we’re at a really special moment of human history; not U.S. history, not Canadian, not Indian, but human, where we’ve hit the edges of our Earth. We can feel that. We are still connected to nature in some way. Those webs of connection are breaking. Some people can feel them. They feel them acutely, but that is the second level of awakening. With the vast troves of information we have access to now, we can actually, if we choose, to consciously look at this data and see what it says.

It says something like this to me, and I would love to get your reflection on this. When I just look at, say, the ecological data, it overwhelmingly is pointing to me, to what I read as an unsuccessful conclusion to the human experiment, unless… to use that word from one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books, The Lorax, unless… we do things differently. Is this, do you think, an unfair or overly cynical way to be approaching the world at this time?

Stephen Jenkinson: That… give me the first part of what you said again, sorry.

Chris Martenson: That this… that when just adding up the ecological data that we have, say it be global warming, or species loss, or the fact that of the insects we do track, bees and butterflies, their populations are heavily depressed and declining. Or the bird species, or the phytoplankton is forty percent reduced, and these sorts of very large scale things that to me scream time out, take a step back big boy, let’s see what you’re doing. But our culture seems to be saying very clearly, we’re not going to look at that right now. You have to be alone with that information. Is that… that is where this… I feel when you say something in the architecture that prevents the awakening, there is not a lot of support, I feel, in the culture in which I find myself.

Stephen Jenkinson: Sure, that is an iteration of that point I was trying to rather use a minute ago, which is, I do not think the culture is actually preventing anybody from awakening. I think the subtleties are such that it is simply unwise to awaken. There is no prevention, there is no coercion of that ilk, I do not think. I think rather there is a running commentary on what constitutes good, right, just, and merciful, and sane, and getting your fair share, and all of that. What constitutes rights and all of that? When you look at those item-by-item things, what you find is the case is made that inattention to the kind of detail you described is well advised.

Because attention to it mitigates against happiness, contentment, your capacity to be a good neighbor, your sense of wellbeing, to be able to sit there with your legs crossed looking out the window and not feeling you have to do something. But there’s nothing to do, et cetera. This is… it would almost appear to be diabolical in how subtle it is; and I suppose maybe that’s the running definition of diabolical, is that you look in vain for the darkness when you’re already in a dark place. So, the darkness is in our eye. It’s not in the way it is. So, this awakening in the face of what you just described a minute ago is first and foremost a courageous proposition.

Whether or not it is mandatory, I do not think it is too hard to argue that, but mandatory in and of itself is very… it does not have much compelling power to it. It has more “should,” it is more “got to,” and people… It seems to me in North America, as a rule, have long since changed the channel from the “got to” channel, or the “should” channel, from the parenting voice, from the deeply disapproving voice. The irony is they apparently refer to the era that you and I now are speaking in as Anthropocene era, which bears sonically a resemblance to the word obscene; certainly, it does, but that means human centered. Or you could say to sound slightly more biblical, that everything around it is wrought now in our image. In our image, that is what we have accomplished. We’ve placed ourselves so ruthlessly at the center of things that you would think that the capacity to be human, to awaken to all this, to marshal our best efforts for the sake of no other reason than for our own sense of wellbeing, would be an inevitable consequence of living in a world that’s human centered.

But you look around and you see basically the opposite responses in full effect. There has probably never been a lonelier time to be alive and to be human than in a human centered world. That loneliness might be the sin that whispers in the middle of the night, what is the point? And turns it into a rhetorical question to defeat every inquiry that you can manage.

Chris Martenson: All right, that rings true and I think a lot of people listening to this, myself included, can certainly have a relationship with that idea of the loneliness of this end. So, when you said it’s perhaps unwise to wake up in this culture of mad… the culture isn’t preventing it, but this it being unwise… Here is the first thing that I think pops up, and that is why I wanted to start with that original quote from yours about the grief soaked proposition. It is possibly unwise to wake up to this, because there is a lot of grief in this material, which is a normal human response in a culture that studiously avoids anything related to emotions. But grief in particular, you’ve said in the past, if I got this right, grief is a skill. What did you mean by that?

Stephen Jenkinson: Well, let me go back one sentence before in your characterization of grief being in the realm of feelings, for example. I am going to suggest otherwise. And to suggest grief is avoided. I’d like to suggest otherwise to that one, too.

So, there is a lot of… the self-help section of the bookstore might be the bookstore now, for all I know. I do not know… with a small business section in the back maybe. Between those two things, that covers everything now, and the biggest section in the self-help department has got to be right now today, this grief thing. It is astounding how sudden it is making a claim on the front page. But you think about the front page. If the front page is the first thing you read, it is the first thing to ebb away as you plow through the details, isn’t it? Just literally in terms of thumbing through a paper. So, as soon as you turn that front page, pretty much that’s gone as something that has banner  headlines and is pleading for your attention. That is exactly what is happening with grief.

Right now, it is front-page news, but by dint of being front-page news, it is doomed to the budgie cage very soon. Just like all the talk about dying and all the euthanasia discussion and all of that. This is a kind of competence addicted culture’s way of neutralizing everything that seems to neutralize competence. It pretends to take it into consideration just long enough to reassure you that you’ve now done that, too. So, the party line on grief is that it’s essentially some kind of combination of feelings that’s temporary, that intrudes on the natural order of things long enough to get your attention. If things are going well long enough to get your attention, but not much longer than that, and you seek out the right remedies, and you too shall be emerging on the other side of grief somehow subtly shaken, but not fundamentally stirred. And to get on happily, and blithely and more capably with your day than you were able to before; so you realize the whole operation is that even grief is being seconded now as a self-help project.

Now, let me offer you an alternative way of understanding it. What if grief is not a feeling, but in some fashion or another, it is the end of feelings? And what if grief is not an intrusion into the natural order of things, but actually a deep recognition of the natural order of things? And what if grief is not temporary, but that once it deeply visits you, it informs you so irrevocably that it becomes part of your take on things. Not what happened to your take on things, but actually, your… it becomes a capacity, and not something that disables you. That is my understanding of how it functions. It is principally an action, and we are not on the receiving end of grief, we are on the practicing end of grief. That means it is something you grow some skillfulness not to cope with and endure until it passes any more than any other skillfulness is something you endure temporarily so you can get back to… what? A less skillful proposition? It is in the nature of skill to hanker after it once you have had a taste for it, and grief is some kind of kinship to that understanding.

Grief… you hear that the grief and loss industry… it’s said as if it was all one word, as if grief and loss is this compound obligation you have to understand, that the hardest things are the ones that you lose. And dying would be a very good example of that, and if somebody close to you dies, we would use this as a synonym. Well, losing is what you do to something; it is not what something does to you, obviously. You lose your wallet. You have done that to the wallet. And you lose your father, and that’s what you did to your father. The language of loss sees to it that the capacity for grief does not happen. Is not grown, because loss is deemed to be something that is inflicted upon you, that you’re the victim of it.

I do not need to tell you or anybody who is listening, how compelling victimology has become now, and it is one of the great get out of jail cards that this culture has produced. To the point now where as James Shillman [PH] so gorgeously observed, there is no difference anymore between feeling abused and being abused. Apparently, they have become the same thing. So grief, and my understanding of it, in my practice of it, and of my observation of how scant and rare a proposition it actually is, is a very redemptive… Not in the born again sense of the term, but in the real sense of the term. The verb “to redeem” means to declare, to pursue in a disciplined way, and to declare a meaning heretofore gone into eclipse. You know the verb “to deem” means to suggest or mean something. To redeem simply is to reconsider the meaning of something. It has nothing to do with the rapture and who gets in, and who does not, that is not what it means. So they don’t own the word.

The redemption project, a phrase I am fond of, is a project that is pleading for our humanity to appear and to work. It seems to me that the declaring call of the redemption project in a time such as ours comes in the form of grief. That grief is the awakening that you were asking me about earlier. It is not the means of awakening, that once you have awakened you do not need the grief any more. Like a takeout coffee cup, no, the grief is the awakening that you inadvertently were seeking unbeknownst even to you.

Chris Martenson: So to redeem this word grief, if I can paraphrase what I’ve heard, is that instead of wading into the self-help section, finding something I can consume, and I’m going to experience grief so that… I can make it more intense, less intense, last longer, last shorter, learn something from it, operate my day better, and in some way become more competent. Those are all very masculine approaches. I am going to experience grief for a purpose, I am hunting, and I am going to kill something with this.

You were saying, if I have this right, that grief is something we form a relationship with like we would form a relationship with a family member. Not so that… but because in a relationship things unfold, things emerge through that. Is that fair?

Stephen Jenkinson: I wouldn’t put it that way, only because to do so suggests that grief is a being somehow, and I would rather stand for the idea that… Let’s use a very simple way of coming to it. Let’s imagine that you enjoy tennis and that you play it. I would ask you why do you play it? And you say because I enjoy it. I would say to you, are you trying to get better at it? And you would probably say, well of course. I would say, why? Because it ups the enjoyment of it, of course. And there is nothing wrong with that, it’s all quite well observed. I would say to you, but you’re not getting good at it so that you can finally stop playing, are you? Which makes no sense whatsoever, until you begin to recognize that a kind of skillfulness Vis a Vis grief. When I propose that, the hearing in the popular culture goes something like this: Oh right, so you get good at grief so you can get on the other side of it, so you do not have to do it anymore. That’s what getting good at grief is, even like having a good relationship with this grief, so it won’t bite you in the ass too badly, kind of thing.

I am saying that grief is, in and of itself, a skillfulness of being a human being. It is not something you have a relationship with. It is that which in a deeply disciplined way, you practice. You partly pursue, you are partly being pursued by it at times, both of which has hopefully the purpose of a deep kind of introduction that you cannot turn away from again. Because it has made a claim upon you and it has the order of necessity about it, not the order of affliction. So, it’s not a matter of declawing and defanging grief until it sits quietly in your lap like a poodle. Not at all, no, grief is a human scaled mystery. That is what it is. I am not sure if there is “grief in the world” that we partake of. It may be so, but this might be an interesting thing to consider.

In medieval times, in northern Europe in particular, in the monastic life, there are stations that you awaken through the course of the evening deep into the night and into the early dawn, where you are at different layers of prayer and contemplation and so on. I am told that one of the contemplative exercises for those people in that time was to say in a kind of chanting fashion, a Latin term, lacrimae rerum, which translates fairly readily for us as the tears that are in all things. And this is what they would say. They would not say it in order to dry the tears that are in all things. They would say it so that it could be known, so that the deep facts of life that requires endings in order for things to proceed. That visits human beings as an awareness of your end before your end actually comes. The possibility of you deepening your life as a direct consequence of realizing how fundamentally limited it is in time, and in consequence, and in import, all of those things inform your days as part of this wakefulness we were talking about earlier. I do not know how grief cannot be a consequence of this, including a wish that it was otherwise, of course.

Just like at the level of the turbulence and the torment that we are describing that is part of our corner of the world now, of course, there is a wish that we had proceeded otherwise. But largely there’s an enormous sense of kind of race level guilt about the fact that we haven’t done so. And so W.H. Auden said it so gorgeously and so remorselessly, it seems to me. He said, to paraphrase him, something in the order of, I am of a time where we would rather be defeated than be persuaded. And if you can pass through the self-hatred, the misanthropy, that that would seem to lead you towards, recognizing misanthropy as just our version of self-absorption and come to the deep understanding that you imagine that we could have done it otherwise. But we didn’t; why not? There is something really wrong with us? Or, it would appear that we couldn’t have done it otherwise, because we didn’t even though there were options galore of proceeding otherwise. But we didn’t do so; so what’s the angel, what’s the midwife of proceeding otherwise? Awakening to the realization that heretofore you have not done so. If that ain’t grief, I don’t know what is, but that’s the awakening I’m talking about.

Chris Martenson: I want to, at this point, turn… I think it is appropriate here, because that is so beautifully said, and the connection here, I think you are informed, if I can be so bold, by all of the time you spent in assisting those who are going through the process of death and dying.

Stephen Jenkinson: It does have its affect, yeah.

Chris Martenson: Yeah, I bet it did. So, to begin that, what is our cultural death phobia?

Stephen Jenkinson: What is it?

Chris Martenson: Yeah. You have described it…

Stephen Jenkinson: You have kind of said it in the question. You have characterized it quite well. I could say that there are… let’s imagine that there are iterations of it that don’t appear phobic in the least. Let’s take, for example, be all you can be. There is a good one. It is a kind of mania, but it is never presented to kids as mania. But, my God, it’s the most intolerant mania you could possibly imagine. Be all you could be. But where’s this could live? Where is this thing called my potential? Where am I to seek it out? Well, by definition it is in the future. And when does the future happen? The answer is, it does not. It does not; the future is forever, but not yet. The not realized, the not appeared in the rest, you see? So the whole idea of holding young people in particular to this kind of iron maiden torture called “your potential,” as if the person who’s talking it can see it, and the young person has no clue, and the older person is holding them to this kind of standard. The whole thing reeks of a degree of intolerance for anything that constitutes ordinary, average, typical, and the rest. So, the only iteration of yourself that’s allowed is the superhero version of it. And that’s what’s buried in “death phobia.” Death phobia sounds like a well-informed aversion to limits, and fundamentally, leaving out the well-informed part, that is what death phobia, is. It is an aversion to limit.

You see why from that characterization, being able to talk about death phobia in those terms leads you so readily to a consideration of “what we’ve done” with this corner of the world that was entrusted to us; because the language is virtually identical. We are limit phobic in the extreme. We are growth addicted. We are competence addicted. And the intolerance that’s in there would appear to be life affirming only if you understand life as being the stage wherein all your genius gets to come out to play. But you know, and I know, that’s not what life is, a staging area for your genius.

What life is, is oftentimes tormenting, broken, a place where, as my countryman who has recently died said, a crack where the light gets in. and that’s it. So, to be deeply intolerant of limits, essentially dooms you to a project of unrestrained, unfettered, and untethered growth. If I may take one more iteration of that and push it a little bit, and it is not a concept, what I am about to say. It is observable. I worked for years in the realm of oncology, and so tumors were a daily fare. And let me suggest to everyone listening now, that a tumor is best understood as growth for its own sake. That is what a tumor is. A tumor is unrestrainedly leaning forward. That is what it does. It simply continues, and it increases. So, its rate of growth… I mean, you can invoke all kinds of economic language here, and it would not be out of place. The rate of growth, when it slows, is good news for the patient, but not good news for the tumor. So, the tumor’s job is to continue regardless of the consequence to its host. Sound familiar? Yeah. It is disastrously familiar. So, apparently, Mars is plan B now.

It is interesting that all the dot com money is going towards ending disease, ending death, and getting to Mars. It is quite astounding that that’s where this new money is going. And all these guys, these millionaires sound philanthropic. And the word philanthropic means human loving. Well, maybe human centered is a better rendering of those projects. If we are not supposed to die, what the hell are we supposed to be doing? What is our death… is our death really an insult that enough dot com money can finally put us on the right side of? How is that not the mania for growth iterated in another direction? And of course, the consequence of tumors is by virtue of it growing untethered to the consequence of its growth, it literally kills what sustains it. That is its job description, to kill what sustains it. But at least to grow. And then you think of that language in terms of the personal growth industry, by which North America is so easily recognizable in the rest of the world, and you realize, my God, it’s the same language again. And it is. And it’s the same mania again, and it’s the same intolerance again. And it’s the same blindness and the deep unwillingness to be a human being and to be reined in by grief. Not to be restrained, but to be bound to what sustains you. That is not deceit, unless your project is to be unrestrained; then it is.

But if your project is to live a mutually nourishing life, then to be restrained in that regard is to be disciplined so that your capacities serve something. And in so doing, you recognize how much on the receiving end of being served you have been. Which is of course what our childhood is for. And the ending of our childhood is often accomplished by recognizing how deeply on the take we have been without ever recognizing it. And sometimes you get to live long enough where you can go…where you can turn to your parent and you can say, I’m sorry, I had no idea for the longest time. And of course your parent would probably say, yeah, I know. And there it is, at the level of family.

Well, what kind of… I do not want to say cosmic pair… what kind of planetary being can we turn to now and say, I am sorry; I had no idea.

Chris Martenson: So, I am wondering if perhaps some of the energy for that self-help industry is not contained within the rather meaninglessness that many people find themselves locked into. And so you’re speaking to this idea that there’s a deeper meaning, and that grief can help us get closer to that. Death can help us get closer to that. That there is a call to greatness that exists within these things that might be termed things you would rather avoid, or find a verse in our culture. Other people are starting to turn towards them, but to get to the heart of this, you had a really important piece from one of the many downloads, transmissions, whatever you call them, that I took from the Rowe weekend was this:

When you say we are spending all this money to try to go to Mars, the tyranny of hope is what pops in; and I would love you to explain that people right now; what you mean by the tyranny of hope.

Stephen Jenkinson: The tyranny of hope, well, okay. Thank you for asking. Hope has a very, very elaborate PR firm working for it. Especially in a grim time such as I think we agree that we are in, then hope actually doubles down, and that you are obliged to be hopeful now as a kind of primary obligation to be able to go to any other form of action, you have to be hopeful.

Okay, so let’s go into about what being hopeful actually does to you. Not the content, not the hope for a thing, but what is the consequence of enacting this generic hopefulness that we are awash in at almost a terminal degree. Well, a parallel might be helpful; and if this is an economically astute audience that we are speaking to this will not be lost on anyone listening.

There is a thing called a mortgage. Of course, the word mortgage, the first part of it is the word death, and the second part of it is the word to portion out, or a gradient of. So a mortgage very clearly is like death on the installment plan. That is what the word actually means. But let’s go through the consequences of being ensnared in a mortgage. The principle consequence is that you are obliged to set aside things that you would do now, money you would spend now, because you’re in debt, with the assurance that if you are willing to forego enough for long enough you will come into the full ownership, outright ownership, of that which you have been mortgaged in the name of.

That is essentially how it functions. In other words, it is the function; it is the consequence of being mortgaged to become hostile in principle to deeply occupying the present moment. Even the present moment itself is mortgaged for the sake of some possible future; some reassured or guaranteed future, economically speaking. So if you take the understanding of this from mortgage and consider hope, you realize my God, item by item, it functions the same way.

The best way I have tried to get people to feel for this when they are sitting across from me as I say, are you sitting there now hopeful that you are sitting there now. And people look at you like, that just simply makes no sense at all. And at some level they’re right. But it’s a kind of nonsense that’s a mandatory realization. Hope, by its definition, happens in the present, but it turns you away from the present for the sake of the hope for something, which is always, always in the future.

So, when I was working with people who were dying for so many years, and they were obliged as a kind of moral obligation, really, to engage this hope project along with their lunatic cheerleaders, which you would know as family and close friends. And altogether now, we can think good thoughts of Barkly and all the rest, because there’s nothing… there’s no giveness to the ending of your life. That’s what hope is for is to crucify endings and make them pay, and make them suffer, and make them leave you alone. Anybody thinks I am overstating this, they have not thought about it enough. They have not been around to see what being hopeful actually does to people who are dying anyway. It is a terrible affliction and it means nobody no good, and the outcomes are this kind of compound loneliness where the allegation that hope and life affirming… When you think about it for five seconds, you realize the only portion of life that hope affirms is the endless, limitless potential life.

Well, please, somebody tell me where that life is. The limitless, the potential, where is it? Well, we have been sucking on the tit of that for quite a while now in the west, and the world is shriveling as a consequence. There is no such thing as limitless. Even in hopefulness, and sadly, some people have to come to the utter bankruptcy of hope as a prerequisite for being able to begin to practice the grief that I was talking about earlier.

Chris Martenson: The one turn of that phrase that I loved is that you are not preaching that people should be hopeless, but to be hope-free.

Stephen Jenkinson: Hope free.

Chris Martenson: Hope free, I like that.

Stephen Jenkinson: Hope free… yeah, you do not have to go back and forth between the two terminal propositions. You know hopeful, oh so you are hopeless. Well, I used to be hopeless. Oh, so you are hopeful. No, better. What is better than hopeful? Well, you know, I am not trafficking in two versions of the same thing, which is what hopeless and hopeful are. They are two brands of cola on the same shelf at Walmart. That is what they are; and they change nothing, no matter which one you are afflicted by. Hope free on the other hand suggests something like this.

You have been afflicted by hopefulness, and you have experimented with hopelessness just as resolutely. And something happened whereby you lost them both and you’re no longer capable of practicing either. I do not want to make it sound like it is some kind of elevated status at all. I am simply suggesting that if your hopefulness and your hopelessness are properly exhausted, your capacity to be hope free can now appear. Where it simply means that you do not require hope to proceed. That is all it means. And in the face of what’s coming, what may have already begun to come, in the face of that, awakened people need to be able to proceed without hope. Without an insistence that they need an assurance that whatever they try to do will pan out in the long term; and without that assurance, you cannot count on them. That is the affliction I see around me.

Do not ask me if you cannot reassure me that what I am prepared to work towards could come to pass. I am saying, as one grown up to another in a troubled time, you have an obligation to be able to proceed minus any assurance that anything good will come from it. And if you don’t have the capacity, you’re still seven years old. And you still want the pay day before the work goes in.

Chris Martenson: This is where you use the word courageous. To me that is the definition of courageous, which is I’m willing to proceed even though I have no idea, or any assurance of the outcome in this. And…

Stephen Jenkinson: I think it is a little more afflicted than that characterization. It could be something closer to this:

Samuel Beckett, great Irish writer. He has a book title. And the book title says what you and I are talking about right now. The name of the book is, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.  Now, if you do not pay attention to how he has phrased it, you think what he is saying is I cannot go on; I can go on. But he doesn’t say that. See, that is hopeful and hopeless again. He says I cannot go on; I will go on. And at the risk of cheapening an elaborate and well accomplished book just by making a phrase of the title, I believe his title says this:

I have an obligation in a troubled time to go on, not being able to.

If you let that stand and you do not try to resolve that, and you recognize the inability to go on is no more predicting of the outcome than the ability to go on is. Neither one of these foreclose on what may yet come to pass. However, the depths of the trouble mean that there is such thing… there is such a thing as not being able to go on and you turn away from that at your peril. The recognition that you cannot go on is a real time in people’s lives. It is not a failure, moral or otherwise, it is not a collapse. It is a true thing, and it takes courage to know that you are at a time when you cannot go on. And what Beckett is saying is, there come times in our lives when we go on not being able to. Where you are not obliged to choose between those two realities that both of them are your companions now; and I think the degree of trouble that we are seeing beginning to crest now, requires both of those skills. The skill of not being able to go on and the skill of doing so at the same time and not being obliged to choose between them. And pretending that because you read or watched Bucket List enough times, you know how to get on the other side of being defeated.

There is nothing on the other side of being defeated. When you lose, you lose. And what we have done to that which has sustained us, we’ve done it long enough now, that the losing has begun. That is a nonnegotiable situation. You can have as many politicians as you want try to get your vote from you by claiming they are going to make something great again. But there is no again to go back to, you see. That is what grownups know about a troubled time and that is… there is a degree of courage in that absolutely, but it is a courage that has no promise in it. That if you are courageous secretly, it is going to be okay.

Chris Martenson: Yeah.

Stephen Jenkinson: You see? This kind of courage is being able to proceed knowing that it is not going to be okay any time soon.

Chris Martenson: Absolutely, that is so beautifully said; and you know, in preparing for this I, I’m right at the heart of this now, I came across a recorded speech you gave. And this one line really jumped out at me, out of an hour. You said:

“If you want to change something, then your lens and your thrust has to be at the level of culture, not at the level of individual psyche.”

I know many of my fellow members here at Peak Prosperity, very much want to change things, but this idea of changing something at the cultural level may strike some of us, it does me, as both reasonable and terribly difficult. Or, at least, a generationally slow project where we might not hold the view that we have that sort of time. So, in your direct experience, how can culture be consciously amended, appended, or dare we say, changed?

Stephen Jenkinson: Yes, another well-wrought and very disturbing question.

Well, let’s start slightly earlier than when you asked it, and let’s ask whether or not you can change your mind. Now, you know all this self-help brigade clings to this as the latest, greatest hope that anybody possibly has. Like until I can change me… We could go on for fifteen minutes with these kind of affirmisms. An unchanged me would just result in the same. I have to change me, work on me, and all of that. Well, here is the question, and I am not saying this as a Rubik’s Cube foolishness. I mean, really. If you are going to change your mind, where is this mind that you propose to change? What is your relationship to this mind? What part of you is not the part that needs changing when you think about changing your mind? Who is doing the changing while your mind gets changed? Who is in charge of dictating what the nature of the change should be? Do you see what I am saying? There is no part of you that is unafflicted by that which you propose to change, including your understanding of what needs changing.

Now, that is very confounding when you let that in. Another way of saying this is, the solution generating industry is the same industry that generated the dilemma that it is now proposing to fix. See what I am saying? So, an understanding that is addicted to fixing, but completely unwilling to be aggrieved by that which needs the attention of the fixing is a place that is simply selling… you know that great song by The Who in 1970s, Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss. And that’s what’s coming; and that’s what all the solutions are.

The real question to my mind is not how do you change culture, but how is culture made. If you would imagine that it is not naturally occurring, like the clouds outside my window right now, it is not naturally occurring. It is a consequence of X number of humans, I do not know the magic number, proceeding in a certain fashion yes. But how? If we can reserve the word culture for some kind of human scaled mystery, which is an accomplished thing, not an inevitable thing, then we can ask the question, well then how do the humans make culture?

I submit to you it happens something like this: Culture is made by enough people being willing to proceed mindful to the point of deceit about what the consequence of enough of them being together in one place has become. That is what culture is.

It does not sound like any kind of accomplishment at all. I know. I know it does not. I know it is a hard sell to imagine that the principle attribute of culture is the willingness to recognize the immense consequence that we have on the place that we settled in while we are trying to be cultured. So, real culture, it seems to me, is an achievement that is a consequence of a willingness to know the deep expense or consequence we exact on the place that we propose to be nourished by. And to do that, you have to have a deep understanding and a willingness to know that all of this nourishment, all of the sustenance is fundamentally limited in scope, in scale, in consequence, in nourishment, in time. That it is not bottomless. I do not know how old you are, but you certainly are aware that there was a time when everybody knew there was enough oil.

Now, I am not saying it was true, I am simply saying everybody knew it. Well, how could you tell? Because of the way everybody proceeded, that is how you could tell. All the decisions that were made, all the buying decisions that were made, all the city planning decisions that were made were all predicated on that idea that there would be enough oil; and then, enough cheap oil, and all the permutations. And of course, this is demonstrably false. But, that didn’t prevent many of us, from “knowing” it and proceeding accordingly.

So… and then until recently, there was enough water, wasn’t there? Now, what does it even mean? Okay, where does this understanding come from that what sustains us most deeply has no bottom? Because that is the prejudice.  I suggest to you it comes from monotheism. Everywhere the world has endured monotheism, it has endured this idea that it is in the nature of the divine to be unlimited and bottomless and infinitely capacitated.

If we could rehabilitate our understanding of what constitutes divine, to include understanding of divinity limit, then the cultural change that you are talking about, I think, has the possibility to ensue. But until our take on the fundaments of life include limitations, especially the ephemeral or the spiritual, or the divine understandings that we might have, until that change occurs, I don’t see any possibility for a culture willfully, purposely, changing itself before it’s destroyed, before it goes down the pipe howling. I do not see it. I do not see it, because the fundamental misapprehension of what sustains it is whispering, there is always more. And that’s why I said that thing about… And we don’t have to die, we don’t have to be sick, and we can get to Mars. That is absolutely an unrepentant idea. And it will not give way as you can plainly see. And enough R and D money, and we can do that, too. But we’re in the land that was built by R and D money. We are in a time that is a consequence of big budgets for these things, and this is what we have.

Who is doing the math? It seems to me it is kind of obvious. How is it working so far to be all you can be? And of course, the apologists say, well, we’re not all we can be. Well, why not? Well, we have not spent enough R and D dollars. Here we go again, you see. So, let’s imagine we’re at the very limit of self-improvement, and that the limit of self-improvement looks like the world that we’re about to bequeath to people that are being born this week. Let’s imagine that. Let’s imagine that’s the very antithesis of deep human culture. The real human culture is lived understanding that your obligation is fundamentally not only to the human unborn, or not yet born, but to all the manner of life forms not yet with us; and that we proceed as if they will be. That would be something.

So, all of these fundamental disturbances seem to be, to me, to be mandatory before a change of the magnitude that your question suggested, is even imaginable, never mind pursuable, I think. Of course, if you are willing to rethink your take on the divine in this fashion, then the change you are asking me about is probably already underway. So, it is not even a staged out, or sequenced proposition, it is a kind of alchemical or myoepithelial moment, where one thing changes and by some mystery that I do not pretend to understand, eighteen thousand changes ensue almost immediately from something like that being entertained.

Now courage again, isn’t it. But a foolish, or wiley kind of courage that has cunning in it is really what we’re talking about here, not like armored Christian soldiers does. A courage that is deeply informed. My countryman again, he’s got a gorgeous line in one of his songs, he said:

“You loved me as a loser, but now you are worried that I might just win. You long for the way to stop me, but you do not have the discipline. How many nights I have prayed for this to let my work begin, first we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.”

That is not a bad recipe and not a bad understanding that your adversaries require discipline to contend with you once you have begun to cultivate this grief nourished understanding of what is being asked of you. And generally speaking, adversaries to a deeply soulful existence don’t have discipline. They have fear. They might have power, but they do not have discipline. And minus discipline. They will do what they’ve done a thousand times before. But if the deal shifts, and if your capacity, if your willingness to present otherwise shifts, then their habituated understanding simply can’t contend. You could say that human freedom, fundamental human freedom, is the capacity to respond differently to an unchanged something. That is what I am advocating, I guess.

Chris Martenson: That is so beautifully said and in the final quote of yours I had prepared here, I think maybe you have just answered it. Because the question was around this quote of yours where you said:

“Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

Stephen Jenkinson: Yeah, truly, huh. You can learn this from being a parent. You can learn it; it does not mean you will. But one of the most unnerving things you can do to your child is to continually remind them that they are the center of your household, and that their emotional disposition governs the day, and the rest. Kids, when they have a sense of their consequence, or their power of that magnitude, they can go out of their minds with that stuff. And it seems to me the human centered understanding of things has driven many of us to the very brink of sanity, while proposing to ennoble us, and to grant us our sanity. I mean, who among us wants to have that much consequence in the world? Even the most pompous and bombastic and running for office types… when they actually win, they blink in the camera and you can hear it… God, what have I done? You can see it in their eyes. I mean, they love the contention of running for office, but the idea of actually being there, and not just fighting completely unnerves them.

What human wants to have that much consequence in the world? Really. So, a little local life lived as… What we have been talking about is true, informed by the understanding that the ripples of your days are not for you to decide their meaning. They are for you to labor in the premise of the meaning of other people, the ones who came before you. And understanding all the while that the meaning of your life is in the hands of those to come; that you do not have an authoritative voice in the meaning of your life. You do not, and it is proper that you do not. There is humility, yes, but there is no humiliation in that. The humiliation comes in when you try to compensate for feeling impotent by overstating your consequence. Overstating how important you are in the scheme of things. It is your humanity, baby, it is not you. It is your humanity that the world needs; it is not you. You are free to be your small self, let the world be fed by your humanity; not a bad deal for all concerned.

Chris Martenson: That is absolutely perfect. I got everything that I had ever hoped for out of this interview and more. I can keep talking, but in honor of your time, respect for your time, I am going to call it here. I want to first thank you for your work in the world. I am acutely aware that to be a truth teller is sometimes a lonely place to be; sometimes a hostile place to be, depending on how you said it.

Stephen Jenkinson: I have heard that, yeah, I have.

Chris Martenson: And your work is just beautiful, it is just brilliant. If we could… I have many, many more things to ask you at some point, if you are open to that and will make a request later if that seems appropriate. But for now, I would love to let people know more about your work, how they can follow you. I know we have a lot of people interested in who you are. We are going to link to your books, and of course you have a website as well, and I wonder if you would be willing to tell us a bit about your school.

Stephen Jenkinson: Sure, happily. First of all, I hope nobody is interested in who I am, because it’s not a big deal. Apropos of what I was just saying, maybe there is some usefulness in some of the things I am trying to contend with, vocally, but not me. I am just a little example, so just we put the emphasis on the right syllable there, hopefully.

Yeah, thank you for asking about the school. I was lucky enough to be prompted by the ludicrous idea that people would be willing to be troubled in a similar fashion to the way I was, and that they would actually pay for the privilege. And that is exactly what’s happened since 2010 I guess it was. To the point where we opened a new class at the school and it was filled in three or four days again. This happens now virtually every time. I think it is an indication not that I am doing anything right at all; much more so that there seems to be a quietly increasing willingness to be drawn in to the deep concernedness that these things ask of us. Not to bank on reassurance and the twelve steps, the five stages that all the solution mania, but actually to be, to linger for much longer than sanity would seem to dictate with those things that trouble, and sorrow, and harrow; because all of these have their sustenance. Anyway, so we do the school a couple of times a year for each class over a two-year period, and it are a proper school.

There is inquiry, there is study, there is the discipline that I was mentioning earlier, there is a reading list and all the rest. It is a thrill, and it is an enormous privilege that people are willing to do this, and come and sit down alongside me, and with each other. I would never have imagined it… As I said to my wife in those days, I said to her, but nobody would come, because who is dreaming such a dream? I said, thinking it was a rhetorical way of contending with her suggestion. And lo and behold, I was wrong again. And these ways I have of being wrong on occasion, have turned into some pretty good arrangements, and that’s one of them.

So, the Orphan Wisdom School is what it’s called and anybody who is interested in learning about it is OrphanWisdom, just like it sounds, all one word dot com, and there is a brief, but to the point description of the enterprise there and some other things that you’ve been kind to mention are there, too.

Chris Martenson: As well as other events that you have going on, and I would encourage anybody, if you do have the chance to attend Orphan Wisdom School, I have not, but having met people who have gone, and having interacted with Stephen, as briefly as I have, I would highly recommend that. Or seeing him if you have the chance. Well worth your time, as well the movie Grief Walker, and his other books, which we are going to be listing at the bottom of this. Stephen, thank you for your time; it has been an absolute pleasure speaking with you today.

Stephen Jenkinson: Well, you know, please understand that as a privilege that I have to be spoken to as if what I have been wrestling with for years might have some use to somebody somewhere down the line. Because that is the greatest acknowledgement, the greatest gift, and I am on the receiving end of that over this last hour, and my appreciation goes back to you for that, too.

Chris Martenson: I thank you for that.

Stephen Jenkinson: You bet.

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