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 attributes our North American culture’s “death phobia” to an 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.
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 suggests 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.
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.
Stephen also shared his 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 the myth of “lost potential” and the “unlived life,” which he says contributes to the tone of misanthropy that dominates most climate change activism. 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 Stephen 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.
Becoming “grief-literate,” means our grief endorses and animates our celebration of life in a troubled time. We must ask ourselves — 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.”