55 - Stephen Jenkinson | Orphan Wisdom
Love Of Life & Beauty of Dying
The Function Of Elderhood
Storytelling, Wisdom, Grace.
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You are invited to join me in a conversation with Stephen Jenkinson. He is a man of magnificence. A true Elder and mentor to myself and many others. He is, among other things, an activist, teacher, author, farmer. In this Innerview, we talk about the love of life, beauty of dying, function of elderhood, and more.
Stephen came into my life a ew years ago after the release of his book Die Wise. It landed for me as being one of the most important books I’ve read. Then I heard him speak on many podcasts and other videos. His message and style struck me as important, profound, and provocative. Then I had the pleasure of seeing him speak live at two events, which were both excellent performances.
He’s got a great sense of humor and a real depth of soul. His mission, ministry, or whatever we might call his proceedings, is some of the most compelling and challenging content that I’ve come across. I believe this is the stuff that we need to hear in society. Radical honesty. Subversion toward lucidity. Real change. Or simple remembering.
We hear so much noise in the manic mainstream media about time, money, growth, “change”, potential, hope, and a whole lot of other nonsense that basically amounts to lies, distractions, or worse. It’s all hidden in the lazy habits of language that we’ve adopted, and the social immaturity that we’ve inherited. Stephen calls all these things and more into question with a bold ferocity and careful curiosity that only a true Elder can. We would be wise to listen, learn, and integrate.
Because of Stephen, I have become a better person. I believe I was born to be an Elder. So it’s my responsibility to recognize the ways in which I have not been acting like an Elder, and then remedy that. I envision Elderhood ahead of me, and aim to reverse engineer that ideal to each moment here and now. Ultimately, I desire to die with wisdom that might nourish others. To come to my dying with dignity and strength in such a way that shows others how they too will come down this road.
So I am deeply grateful for Stephen doing everything he has done. I pray that he continues to burn the hardwood for our sake. I am also grateful for you to take the time and energy to give me the gift of your attention. I wish for you to tune in to this frequency and vibrate on the village mindset. It’s a cultural current of mystery and majesty. Join the Virtue Squad and level up your life to a higher cause than yourself. Our lives are not our own. Our deaths are not our own. This is service for the whole life community. Let’s recreate paradise.
2:20 Intro to Stephen
10:33 Nights Of Grief & Mystery excerpt: “Narco Disbelief
14:40 Stephen’s post tour reflections and integration
A few remarks in praise for the simple life
A Miles Davis story
How music and style makes a difference in performance
Life on the road and not missing home, but not missing the road either
Invocations, spells, and the spectacles of grievances
Euthanasia is a death phobic cultures solution to itself
Stephen kindly corrects my reading of a passage from his book
A little lesson in the use of language
How Stephen still writes his words with pen on paper
The wonder of good questions
Elders in training. Too young? Says who?
Elderhood is a function, not a character trait.
The spiraling of time flowing backwards
Hope is methadone for people who don’t have courage
1:20:30 INNERVIEW ENDS
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I worked for quite a few years in what many call end-of-life care and I call the death trade, an honorable enough and entirely accurate name for the enterprise. I was adrift for much of the early going. Having a couple of master’s degrees in hand in those days, I was pretty much left to my own devices. I was in my forties, too, and I had just enough life ballast to hold in a storm. And storm, it did. Benign administrative neglect was the order of the day. I don’t complain; it suited me. But there were troubles that came with questioning aloud the wisdom of the day.
If you wait for the wisdom of age to take over, you often wait in vain.
There is more palliative care and hospice care and end-of-life care and whatever else it gets called than there has ever been in North America, and I suspect there is more terminal anxiety and thrashing in the midnight hour and sedation than there has ever been. Let that settle in for a moment.
Ours is an aging population. There are more old people among us, both numerically and as a ratio of the population, than there have ever been.
I am wondering how it has come to pass that the fabled treasure trove of experience that old people have traditionally been in “traditional cultures” has somehow not appeared in this dominant culture of North America. There is the burden, yes, and there is the Boomer bulge, God knows, but there isn’t the “national living treasure” aura that should go with it.
It used to be that age was held in some esteem, considerable esteem even, as the concentration of life experience. Life experience and its many lessons were once the fundaments of personal and cultural wisdom. It stands to reason then, that with this many old people around, we should be awash in the authentic, time-tested, grey wisdom that should emanate from them.
And there should be cultural initiatives that expose the general population to this wisdom. And this should deepen the culture’s sanity and capacity for sustainable decision-making. And that should make us all ancestors worth claiming by a future time, now that we’ve come to our elder-prompted senses and begun to proceed as if unborn future generations deserve to drink the distillate of our wisdom.
I don’t see it. Maybe you don’t either. I see more senior centers, more assisted living facilities, more old folks homes than ever before, but I am unable to read in this concentration of resources any veneration of age. If anything, building a service sector called “senior” seems to have reduced old peoples’ visibility or presence in the general urban tangle of North America. They’re off now in their own places, places “better able to care for them,” places set apart from the homes and workplaces and meeting places of the rest of us.
There is not a lot of keenness about this, the “next adventure of life.” The exponential math of the thing is plain. If neither you nor I die young or middle-aged, and current trends prevail, and we don’t do anything about it all, and now, we’re probably headed for institutionalization and invisibility, and rampant addiction to competence, and to its deep intolerance for ebbings and for endings, which will claim our heirs, just as it claimed us.
Well, here is what is becoming glaringly obvious: there is nothing inherently ennobling about aging. Nothing. There’s no sign that anything lends old people steadiness or wisdom or magic from on high or from down below. If we don’t train young people and middle-aged people in elderhood, we will have no elderhood. There is no such training. Without culturally endorsed deep employment of this treasure of experience that could be elderhood, aging is just more of the same with less of the give-a-shit.
The young people are watching, wondering whether there is anything lying out there beyond their forties that is worth the trouble. They already seem convinced, many of them, that at best it is a con, that dread is what follows fifty. They are, even now, inheriting a world that their seniors milked for all it was worth, and their seniors are in their timeshares now. The resentment on this matter is almost incalculable.
If we do not take up this work of elder-making and begin to make age credible and mandatory, the children not yet born will have the hangover of sweet, toothless platitude and their elders’ abdication of duty for their inheritance.
The day will surely dawn when young people will come to you—as they have begun to come to me—and ask what you did about the troubles, and whether you knew how bad it was, or whether you handed over to them a diminished world with a shrug of compassion fatigue and a vacant wish of good luck, or whether you stood up for them. Until that day, you and I are—we must be—elders in training.
So I set before you a task, a pilgrimage of a kind. Let us see if there are enough among us who can grow sturdy and sorrowed from the labors of a deep and disheveling contemplation of what has become of age in our time.
It isn’t any longer a matter of inviting elders, those of them left, back into the fold. They aren’t out there, waiting on our invitation. They aren’t out there. Elders are a sentinel species for humanness, and like other forms of life in our corner of the world, they’ve mysteriously gone missing. Young people are, often involuntarily, looking for them, and they can’t find them. How about this: old people are looking for them too. The retreat centers attest to it. If you’re looking for signs of the end times, that alone might do.
This is not a training manual for elders.
It is a love song for young people who wonder how and when it all went haywire, who suspect that maybe it has always been this way, who already seem all but certain that it will be the same for them, soon enough.
Mostly, this is a ballad of courtship for the aging and for the old. I am calling them to come back to the shuffle and the sway of our mutual life, to join us in the village square of what is to come, to forego the climate-controlled inner life. I am not telling them that all is forgiven, that things are better now, that we get it, finally, and we need them after all. They aren’t forgiven, and for the most part we don’t seem to believe we need them.
I am making the case for elderhood, not for easy agedness. I’m doing so mostly by wondering what happened. Because something happened. Something happened to ancestors and elders and honor. There’s work to be done, and there’s an old wisdom to be learned where there used to be the wisdom of old, and you can’t fix what you don’t understand. That’s where we’re headed: to grievous wisdom. Let us see if we can bear the sound, the particular sound, of no hand clapping.
This is a plea and a plot for elders in training.
The Roar And The Storm At Dawn
Imagine that you have endured long enough that the habits of your one true childhood have, for the most part, taken their junior position in the scheme of things. Imagine that you are not old yet, not by the lengthening standards of the day, but from where you stand, you can see “old” coming on.
Imagine, too, that you are not caught up with the new spate of instruction manuals proposing to guide you through this new phase, that you haven’t given yourself over to the care of the reassurance brigade and their ministrations or to that soothing sound of having the best part of the thing ahead of you, of sixty being the new forty, or whatever those integers are.
Still, with all of that ganging up on your conscience, a part of you thinks about what kind of a world you’re about to pass on. You move on from the morose things that you can’t change, but this business of young people tangles you. With luck, it won’t go away, and this version of the “serenity prayer” will begin losing purchase.
It is at just such a time, should the Gods prevail, that someone one-half or one-third your age might come around. You fall into casual banter, glad that the chasm of years has closed enough to permit casual banter. Then, without seeking your permission or your forgiveness first, and without much in the way of preliminaries, that younger person asks you a question:
“When you were my age, did you know what was happening?”
Can you hear the unleavened mixture, half dread and half plea on behalf of scant sanity? This person isn’t asking about how cool you were back in the day, how hip or aware or awakened you were. This person is asking about whether anything means anything at all, just for starters. This person is asking whether the madness of these days has always been there, or whether it came on on your watch.
So the answer that you give, among the most authentic and faithful answers, won’t cover for your inattentive days or those years-long bouts of legitimate self-absorption. The answer won’t satisfy, may not ever be able to satisfy. It won’t answer for the grudge and the grievance and the greying of their technicolor world. Your answer could come to sound something like this:
“Well, in those days, given everything, anybody who wanted to know what was happening could have known. It was there to know. But not everybody wanted to know. So not everybody did. That’s the way it went. For all I know, it’s still going that way.”
It seems that there’s only one other question left, after a faithful answer like that. This person might look you in the eye right about then, and ask
“So, what did you do?”
The entire conceit of the thing seems to be to withdraw from the field of contention, laying your burden down, letting others drag the stone up the hill for a while. There is much to be said for retreating when the going gets tough. I can’t say it, though. That I’ll have to leave to others.
I’m told that some people retreat routinely, every year. And what is the direction implied in the word? “Away from,” or so I’ve seen. We’ve had retreating on the front burner in the self-improvement kitchen for perhaps half a century. How’s it working so far? How is all that self-improvement improving things?
In times of deep disarray, such as we have now, is there merit in retreating? Now that nerve and give-a-shit is in ebb, does an elder leave the heavy lifting to the young, those with all that untried dexterity of limb, and wish them luck, and lock the door to the gated community behind them, and take the week or the season off? It’s understandable. It’s elderly, in the current sense of the word, and it seems unbecoming.
Important Safety Announcement
The life of an elder is not an exercise in risk management or damage control. It is because of that duty not taken up that the woman at the retreat center (and retreating was what she seemed to be doing) indeed didn’t feel safe.
Elders are a strange place to go to for safety. If safety means “anything goes,” if it means there are no consequences for your self exploration or for taking a few years off from the strange days or the heartache of being awake, then elders endorse danger by their unwillingness to collude with you.
They are faithful to a fault to life, that’s all. Sometimes it looks as though they’re your friend when they’re faithful that way. Sometimes it doesn’t. The difference comes down to whether you want to hear from them or you want to hear yourself come out of their mouths. You’re not safe, and they see to that, and that’s it.