We Must Die Differently
Stephen Jenkinson has been pushing against the grain of our modern North American culture for more than 40 years...
whether in his two decades of work in hospice in Toronto (during which time he earned the moniker “The Angel of Death”), or in his books, lectures, videos, and holistic-life lessons he teaches on his farm at annual “Orphan School” residencies.
Drawing on knowledge from indigenous cultures, and employing poetry and parable, Jenkinson approaches every conversation armed to dissemble the fantasy of modern life as we have built it: that our death is irrelevant to our life, and that trying not to die is our primary experience of end of life. In this way, he writes in his book, Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, “We end without any ending, we are gone without any leaving.”
We Exist To Die
Jenkinson has a masters of divinity from Harvard and a masters in social work from the University of Toronto (Jenkinson is Canadian), and these twin wells of knowledge deeply inform his work of trying to wake us all up to the true nature of our humanity: that we exist to die, and that knowing, deeply, that we will die will keep us from our perpetual habit of “trading on the future,” so that we can instead live lives of meaning and connection now, every day.
That is heady, heavy stuff—and not easily digested nor understood, even after having listened closely to one or many of his lectures, or read his books. So, here, a brief guide to some of his key concepts about how our “death illiteracy” is cheating us, keeping us from being as deeply alive and connected to the larger world as is our birthright as human beings.
Find the concepts that call to you, and then listen further to his work and words here, here, here, or here, or in his latest book, due out in July 2018, “Come of Age: the Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble.”
Dying isn’t a punishment of being born
“It is not human to fear death,” says Jenkinson. “The circle of your love of life exists because it ends,” he says, in the same way that we can appreciate the flowers in spring because we know they will not be there come fall. “Our death illiteracy is tied to our inability to understand the deal of humanity”—which is that our lives are not to be lived for ourselves alone. Rather, that our life exists to ensure that there be future generations of life, and that we learn lessons well and share them forward in time. “All of us come to our time to die as an utter amateur,” says Jenkinson. “We have almost no experience with it,” because we avoid it, tiptoe around it, and even insist to our loved ones who are dying that they are not, in fact, dying. Quotes from The Extra-environmetnalist” podcast, episode 51.
Owning death is the key to being deeply in life
“The centrality of death gives you the chance to live,” says Jenkinson, “because it says, ‘Here’s the bad news: it’s not going to last. And here’s the godo news: it’s not going to last.’ You can choose how to take that. You have the opportunity to sink both heels into the soil and say ‘Here I stand, and while I do, there are things I can do.’ The news of your imminent demise is enabling, when all is said and done.” Quote from an interview with The Sun, “As We Lay Dying.”
In our culture, we constantly trade on the future
As a society, we tilt toward the forever tomorrow, whether creating goals or putting off tasks and people that need attention. This comes from resisting the notion that our time is limited. Fear of death is “not everybody the world over,” says Jenkinson. “And it’s not always been the case,” which is how to know it’s not natural. “Why is it that it seems everyone we know in this time has this problem, dilemma, or challenge, this dread of dying?” He refers to the teachings of indigenous cultures: “Every culture worth a damn knows that the crucible of making human beings is death.” Quotes from The Sun and The Extra-environmentalist.
We are all orphans in our modern world
Jenkinson laments the end of ritual and rites of passage in our culture, saying we have turned into a culture of perpetual adolescents, complaining when life doesn’t “go our way.” We don’t have learnings about our responsibility to life and to the world handed to us from our elders, and lack a defined transition to becoming true adults—which, he says, means having a consciousness and awareness “rooted in knowing history, being claimed by ancestry, and working for a time et to come.” Our individualism keeps us isolated from the bigger picture.
Even your death is not for you
“Our job is to sow grief into life,” says Jenkinson. “Grief and the praise of life side by side,” because our awareness of life’s gift is inevitably linked to our awareness of its limits. “Our job is die well and give our stories to the next generation, to tell the stories of our time so that we may learn from them,” in the same way that the death of nature all around us feeds the earth and fuels the cycle of the next life. There is a brilliant humility to all of Jenkinson’s messages, and yet that humility is tied to the greatest grandeur: that we exist at all. To die well, he says, “you have to be willing for life to be bigger than your life.” Quotes from The Griefwalker documentary about Jenkinson and his hospice work.