This past Sunday I was joined by activist, farmer, author and founder of The Orphan Wisdom School, Stephen Jenkinson, for a public conversation entitled: “Death Phobia and Grief Illiteracy: How They Distance Us From One Another, Our Planet, and Our World Crisis.”
It was a rich conversation, animated by Stephen’s wry humor and unflinching contact with death and fear. We went deep with our inquiry of how it is possible to “die wise” in a culture that has institutionalized the practice of bypassing dying altogether.
Stephen worked for many years in what he calls the “death trade,” as a former program director in a major Canadian hospital, consulting to palliative care and hospice organizations, and working extensively with dying people and their families. Having seen vividly how what he calls our cultural “death phobia” prevents us from supporting people in making healthy embodied choices about the end of life, he has dedicated himself to revolutionizing grief and dying in North America. He focuses on the care of the soul, and it is there that he is an uncommon diagnostician.
I asked Stephen to frame our conversation by sharing what he means by “death phobia.” He attributes it to our inability to deal with endings and a misguided, heroic attempt at bypassing the process and experience of dying, in essence to die physically but not spiritually or existentially. This, he says, is expiring, not dying.
Death phobia is so prevalent in North America because there is less dying in our midst, and our responses to it are mostly technical — pain and symptom management — which avoid the reality of dying. We contact books about dying but rarely actual people who are dying.
I reflected on the deaths of loved ones I’ve experienced in my own life, and wondered if in allowing ourselves to be cut deeply by loss and grief, perhaps we can go beyond the perspective of our personal narrative. I wondered if perhaps as a culture we are being pushed beyond our collective narratives, asked to find different kinds of intelligence. After all, most of us live as if we will never die. The old as well as the young. What then is the alternative opportunity to “dying without dying.” How can we be in honest relationship with the inevitability of our own death now?
Stephen offered an answer that he cautioned was probably not a “gesture of customer satisfaction.” He suggested that the deep ethics of your dying time need you not to ask what dying will do to you, but to inquire what it asks of you.
The next challenge is to resist the cultural influence to establish an elaborate coping strategy where you keep the realities of dying at bay while working out the meaning of life. Living and dying is vast, uncharted territory—a mystery that is relentlessly faithful only to the mystery of itself. Death doesn’t wait for your best day to arrive, or until you’ve achieved wisdom or you feel prepared. Instead, it requires you to understand where in the arc of your days you are now, or else you face it unmoored and ungrounded.
Grief is the animating orientation to the parts of life that you wish were otherwise—and legitimately so. Stephen did not pretend he is free of fear of death, or discomfort with it. He was emphatic in admitting that he has no wish to die soon. He admitted that the idea that the world will go on without him is a sorrow-soaked proposition for him. Some part of him wishes it were not so, and yet some part of him is enormously willing for it to be so. It was tender to be with him as he admitted how both of those things are alive within him.
I was especially interested to hear Stephen’s insights on the human relationship to climate change and the paradoxical death phobia that he says underlies most ecological care. He traced this mis-orientation to a phenomenon he observed while engaged in the heart-breaking work of counseling terminal children and their parents.
What parents seemed to grieve most, even more so that the actual loss of the child, was the idea of the “lost potential” and the “unlived life.” Yet when Stephen gently explored this with the children he found they could not even conceive of this idea. To them, their life was ongoing and realized and entirely now.
He says this idea of lost potential is “high on the agenda of climate change activism” and contributes to the tone of misanthropy that dominates most climate change activism, as if the best solution is absenting ourselves from the equation. He quipped “only humans are capable of misanthropy, not trees” and suggested that we are going to have to find some motivation for our coming days that doesn’t include degrading ourselves.
But he also acknowledged that in our time, if we awaken at all, we do so “with a sob,” encountering a landscape so disfigured that it is all too tempting to find ways to anesthetize ourselves.
Grief, not hope is the answer. While hope is “hostile to the present” in a troubled time, we feel obligated to hope, even when we’re dying. When we become grief-literate we cultivate the willingness to spend longer periods of time learning to grieve over the sorrowing and heartbreaking truth of where we are. A deep gratitude can perhaps then become available—for the remarkable, quixotic alchemy of being alive and living long enough to realize that you are alive.
For many bewildered dying people the problem wasn’t that they were dying, but that they didn’t know where they were in the arc of their days. They were lost, and had not a clue as to where they were in the dying process. Do we know where we are in the arc of the days of our current order? The symptoms are at such a great distance. So you have to make up your mind more or less arbitrarily that the time of trouble is upon us now, that there’s nothing to wait for that will be a clearer affirmation than the ones that are available to us at the moment.
A troubled time like ours needs people who are the kin of the Irish writer Samuel Beckett. Stephen says Beckett’s powerful title, I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On, is an achievement “beyond belief.” There’s no conjunction between the two statements. It is a grief-informed orientation to a troubled time, because it is austerely candid about both realities. He’s not saying “I don’t think I can go on.” He’s just testifying that there’s such a thing as “I can’t go on” without obliging himself or anyone else to get beyond it. But there’s more, which doesn’t eliminate the first part, “I’ll go on.” The marching orders of today might be something like this — we’re going to have to craft an ability to go on, not being able to. These things occur at the same time.
Our grief endorses and animates our celebration of life in a troubled time. The particular afflictions of our time have not sunk into our bones yet, partly because they don’t register first in North America. They register elsewhere. So we fret over these matters. What do grownups do at a time like this? Part of the job description is to testify so that others can learn where the hell we are in this process that seems to be quickening. We can begin to see where we are in the arc of our days as a species. And thus, Stephen says, “more or less self-appointed, we fan out over the countryside of our sorrows and see whether or not…we can be of some use. It’s not more glorious than that.”
Stephen also says, “my part is to plead for the learning of the thing that sorrows us.”
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