488. How to Die: Facing Our Death Phobia & Embracing Our Elders w/ Stephen Jenkinson

Stephen Jenkinson

DISCLAIMER: This podcast is presented for educational and exploratory purposes only. Published content is not intended to be used for diagnosing or treating any illness. Those responsible for this show disclaim responsibility for any possible adverse effects from the use of information presented by Luke or his guests. Please consult with your healthcare provider before using any products referenced. This podcast may contain paid endorsements for products or services.

Join us on a profound exploration into death, phobias, and palliative care with esteemed author and expert, Stephen Jenkinson. Learn about our societal disconnect from ancestral traditions, the importance of Elderhood, and how understanding life's limitations can lead to better self-improvement.

Stephen Jenkinson is the author of Reckoning (2022), A Generation's Worth- Spirit work while the crisis reigns (2021), Come of Age, The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble (2018), Die Wise, A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul (2015), How It All Could Be, A Workbook for dying people and those who love them (2009) and Money and the Soul's Desires: A Meditation (2002) as well as the subject of Griefwalker (2008, NFB- Dir. Tim Wilson) and Lost Nation Road (2019, Dir. Ian MacKenzie).

DISCLAIMER: This podcast is presented for educational and exploratory purposes only. Published content is not intended to be used for diagnosing or treating any illness. Those responsible for this show disclaim responsibility for any possible adverse effects from the use of information presented by Luke or his guests. Please consult with your healthcare provider before using any products referenced. This podcast may contain paid endorsements for products or services.

I'm thrilled to present to you an incredible episode delving deep into the often uncharted topic of death, our fears surrounding it, and the realm of palliative care with the wise and insightful Stephen Jenkinson. As the author of profound books such as "Die Wise" and "Come of Age," Stephen has transformed our understanding of mortality and the societal roles of elders.

We discuss the chances he took in institutional hospital settings and how our western culture has diverted from age-old practices surrounding death. Through our conversation, you'll realize the importance of reconnecting with our roots and gaining a more profound respect for the natural cycle of life.

We also delve into some unsettling trends seen in today’s society, such as our tendency to remove ourselves from ancestral traditions to form an identity while disconnecting from our heritage. We discuss the concept of elderhood, its vital cultural function, and the loss it has suffered in our modern culture. Stephen also sheds light on the fears of aging and dying and how understanding life's limitations can lead us to better self-improvement.

Swimming to the deep end, this episode ventures into the controversial topic of euthanasia's legalization in Canada, examines the impacts of a death-phobic culture, and contemplates suffering and pain as essential parts of our life and death narratives. 

00:01:58 — (Re)introducing: Death, Phobias & Palliative Care

00:11:25 — Inheriting a Ghost Culture and Reconnecting With Our Elders

  • Pillaging other ancestral traditions to find a sense of identity
  • Disconnecting from one's own heritage 
  • Elderhood as a cultural function
  • The loss of respect for elders in modern society
  • Read: Come of Age by Stephen Jenkinson
  • A conversation in Oaxaca City about elderhood
  • Brief observation around the phobia of aging and dying
  • Who goes into self improvement to obey the limits of life?
  • Understanding the limits that have been entrusted in you

00:33:09 — Legalization of Euthanasia in Canada & Dying in the Manner of One’s Living

  • How a death phobic culture masks euthanasia as “Maid Medical Assistance in Dying”
  • English language has no passive voice for our relationship with God
  • Anticipatory grief, understanding the verb "to die" 
  • Finding a way to say goodbye while you still can
  • Medication as an end-of-life value vs. end-of-life presence
  • Remembering Aldous Huxley's death involving an LSD journey
  • Why suffering and pain belong in matters of life and death 
  • Three teachers that have impacted Stephen’s work

Luke Storey: [00:00:00] So it's timely that we're having this conversation for a couple of reasons. One is I've been doing this podcast for, I don't know, seven years or something, and one topic that I've always wanted to cover has been death, and our, as you put it, phobia around death and how it's such an ignored and dysfunctional part of our culture. And I've just been waiting on the right person to talk to.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:00:29] I see. And when you couldn't find him, you got me.

Luke Storey: [00:00:32] Yeah, exactly. But interestingly enough, I didn't realize it until we had booked this, but I heard you some years ago on my friend Daniel Vitale's podcast, and it was really moving at the time. And then it just disappeared in the feed, and I forgot about it. And so when Kimberly Ann Johnson alerted me to you being in town, I realized that's the guy. He's the guy I wanted to talk to. 

So there's that. I have two half brothers, and their mom just died last week. And they knew it was coming, and it was a pretty intense process as it goes. And so that's on top of my mind as I've been in communication with them and doing my best to support them as someone who's never had a lot of direct experience with loved ones dying. And so here we are. In preparation for that, after we booked, I started listening to your book Die Wise. Quickly downloaded it, as I do in preparation for interviews, and found that it was 18 hours. So I'm like two hours--

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:01:42] You should have asked.

Luke Storey: [00:01:42] Yeah, I'm two hours in.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:01:43] I could give you the tight version.

Luke Storey: [00:01:46] Yeah. Give me the cliff notes. Yeah. So here we are. I guess my first question for you is a thing that is always curious to me is, what motivates someone to go into an area of work. And I know you do a lot of different things now, but you spent 20 years in palliative care. What do you think drew you to that as a career for that long?

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:02:07] Yeah, it actually wasn't even that long. It was maybe six, I think.

Luke Storey: [00:02:13] Oh, okay.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:02:14] I just look older.

Luke Storey: [00:02:17] Looks like you spent 20 years in the death field.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:02:20] Well, the notion of motivation credits me with a degree of self-determination that wasn't really there, I should say. So I think if you're really lucky, life gets you out of the way of your life and then your life assumes operator status for a while. And if you know how to give up, then you ride with that somehow. That's more or less what happened. First of all, it helps not to be 25. You can't do that gig at 25 or 35 years old, I don't think.

There's just not enough ballast. You don't have enough gravel in the machinery, and you really need it because you can be capsized in that job so routinely and so mercilessly by just the ordinary human suffering of a fellow human being, the implacable mania for self destruction that manifests in that business as well. So somebody knew me and just pushed me in that direction. I'm not an organizational guy. Nothing to be proud of. I'm just not. And I'm just not built to play in the sandbox well with others if there's something egregious afoot.

Early on, I knew again why I'm not an organizational guy, because I couldn't look the other way. The greater good wasn't being served by what I saw. So then there's one motivation to enter, but it's a different motivation to stay. Much like marriage, you could say. There's reasons you get married, but none of them survive being married, and being married is its own event. It was very much like that. You're nodding like you know what I'm talking about.

Luke Storey: [00:04:21] Yeah.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:04:23] So I learned how to be motivated to be there, but that was not there at the beginning. Not at all. I didn't know there was such a thing as palliative care, really. The notion that the dying people can be severed off from humanity. I'm putting it very prejudicially now, but this is what I came to see. That dying people can be sequestered, and that it is "for their own good" that they are. And I don't just mean institutionally apropos of old people, for example, but I mean, their citizenship in the land of the living was in suspended animation, and nobody seemed to be troubled by that.

I was the only one who thought, this is not only unnecessary and premature. This is malpractice. At the fundamental level, that's what it was. So now I'm motivated. Now it begins to rise in me, the sense of, I don't know, a fundamental injustice that can't be defended by the particulars and the needs and the institutional limitations and things like that. So then I stayed. And then very quickly, it worked that I rose to the top of the particular food chain that I was working in.

You couldn't go any higher and not be a medical person. But I was in a circumstance where I was telling medical people how to practice. Not how to practice medicine, unless you elaborate your understanding of medicine and not have it just be about metabolics, but have it be a real whole person consideration, which is what dying is. It's not a metabolic event with unfortunate psychological add-ons. That's the way it was dealt with. So it was principally, in a medical environment, dying becomes medical. To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That's what it was.

Luke Storey: [00:06:30] The same could be said for birth. The way we treat birth.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:06:34] Yeah. I mean, it's the reason that Kimberly and I have worked together. So we recognize the kinship in the afflictions of the work as well as the work. I had an increasingly unavoidable obligation based on what I saw to do what I could as long as I was there. And so I took a lot of chances. And taking chances in an institutional setting and a fundamentally conservative practice area like medicine is a time limited arrangement. It just is. And I'm not blaming anybody for that.

I put myself on a collision course with the powers that be. I didn't really intend to, but I realized early on, I think this is what's coming. So for a while, I was the beneficiary of benign administrative neglect. And it worked out exceedingly well for a brief but intense period of time. And I even conned myself into thinking this could last for a while. But doctors understandably won't take direction from non-medical people, given the kind of medical legal liability arrangement that in North America, I think, generally pertains to the to the profession.

So I don't blame them actually for closing ranks against somebody who's not their own, because I wasn't really as exposed as they would have been to radically challenge their practice. I wasn't exposed to the liability in the same way that they could easily have been. So I hope that sounds as evenhanded as I mean it to sound. Still, in all, it may be understandable, but I don't know how forgivable it is.

Luke Storey: [00:08:19] Where do you think, as a culture in the West, we diverted so dramatically in the ways in which we deal with death from a historical perspective, looking at indigenous peoples, peoples that were more fully integrated into the human experience, into nature, into our understanding of the cosmos? It seems that ancient peoples or peoples living closer to the land had, from my perspective, a healthier relationship with death. Where do you think this divergence happened when we started to create this phobia and compartmentalize death and treat it, as you said, as some metabolic pathology rather than just a natural inherent part of life to be celebrated and fully experienced?

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:09:13] There's a few contenders for what happened. I think if we're talking about Anglo-North America, which is the only regime I'm properly qualified to make any observation about at all, I think. But our experience here in North America hasn't gone on that long. And I think part of it can be traceable literally to coming here. I mean, you know the rap in your country here in the United States. You have a national mythology about why people came.

And I mean that it's a mythology because it doesn't stand up to any scrutiny at all in terms of how it actually went down back in the day, never mind now. So nobody had any intention of getting back to the land in the sense that you mean it in your question. I mean, there were a lot of agrarian people, but they did everything they could to clamber to the top of the pile right from the get go.

So if you're basically a consequence of institutional enslavement of some sort or other in the old country, how do you suppose you'll be, come to a new country and a fresh start? You're willing to start at the ground, do you think? Because these people were desperate to avoid what they ran from? But it's very difficult to have an agrarian society and not have a lot of workers who are menial in their tasks.

So do you think the guys who ran from that stuff are going to line up for exactly the same gig in the new world? You know that's not what happened. So the best slave owners around were people who did slavery. This is a well-known historical reality. So there's that terrible misapprehension about what starting over could possibly look like. And it turned out to be more of the same with you on top if you could manage it.

That was the dream actually, the malignant dream. The other thing too is very, very practical. So we're coming over the Middle Passage, as it was often called, usually over the North Atlantic, and people are dying left and right on these ships and getting a sea burial. And mostly they're the very young and the very old. So by the time the remnant people washed up on shore here, first of all, you can imagine what they saw.

You can imagine what condition they were in. And generationally, they were bereft of the young and the old from among them. So you have a survivor mentality going in. In any culture that's been founded on the basis of survivorhood as a fundament of the thing tends not to do very well. It tends to be really hard on the place that it lands in. So we were elderless at our beginning.

Luke Storey: [00:12:12] Wow, that's interesting.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:12:14] And then over and above that, the vectors of culture that could have sustained some land-conscious, tradition-conscious, animist-oriented way of life all fell away. And people lost much more than they found by coming. So to credit that devastation, I came up with an epithet of sorts that goes something like this, every morning, on this continent, people who look like me wake up in the absence of what they lost by coming. It was mostly loss.

Indigenous people wake up in the same place in the presence of what they lost by us coming. When you think about it, easily, at first contact, it sounds like the Indigenous people got a much worse shake as a result of this history that we're talking about. But if you let that rendering, that parallelism that I just said in a little bit, you realize the devastation that has beset white folks on this continent easily challenges the devastation that you apportion out to other groups, other circumstances.

I know this. It doesn't go down well, but we would not be conducting ourselves as we are apropos of dying, apropos of age, apropos of minorities, and on and on and on if some of this stuff wasn't so. It's not just because white people are devils, and what are you going to do? This thing I'm talking about is part of what constitutes the contemporary thing we could call white. This is partly where it comes from. It's not from here. It's from this kind of thing. And this is inherited.

We've inherited a ghost culture. So it's not surprising that dying during the course of your lifetime and mine has turned from a moral obligation into a lifestyle option. Another opportunity for you to express yourself. So is it shocking that dying has been seconded to the hallucinogenic program? Is it surprising? Not surprising to me in the least. It's absolutely in keeping with what I've been saying here in the last four or five minutes. But you probably have another question.

Luke Storey: [00:14:56] I have many questions. But that brings to mind something I've observed. I'm 52, so I've been around a little while. Maybe not quite as long as you have, but it's very common that Americans that I know have, a, no real direct experience, or at least longstanding or impactful experience of the influence of their elders, of grandparents, great aunts and uncles, etc, the family unit. And not only that. Many of us-- I mean, this is true.

I was talking to my wife about this yesterday. No one on her family, for example, knows anything about their past, their relatives. Who came from where? Who landed where? It's like our family trees, generally speaking, and this is true in my case. I mean, I've interviewed my parents like I'm interviewing you, asking them everything they know about our family lineage to try to get some understanding of where we are and to have something maybe to pass on when I have kids. But we do seem to have, to your point, a massive disconnection with those that came before us.

It's like we don't really have a culture, so it makes sense that we don't have this inherent and integral part of culture, which is how we approach death. So that's just one nuance of the human experience that's largely missing or dysfunctional because we're missing the whole thing, in most cases. I mean, I think some people, they have their, oh, yeah, we go back to Italy, visit the old country. We have family there. I mean, there are people that are connected to the places from which they came.

But largely speaking, I mean, other than people like you to whom I speak on this podcast, I don't know a lot of elderly people that can teach me elements of wisdom that have been passed down about death, or birth, or what life means. I mean, you have to really seek it out. It's not just inherent in the family unit that you're going to sit down with grandpa and learn about the way of the world.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:17:10] You're describing a tragedy that takes the form of poverty. I don't mean socioeconomic poverty, no. I mean poverty of the kind that you've just described. But the whole thing is tragic. So let's come to the last thing you said first. A lot of people look like me who are a lot younger than I am are very keen on the notion of, I'm going to use the word pillaging, pillaging other ancestral traditions, not their own, for the sole purpose of reconstituting a sense of personhood and selfhood that's legitimate.

And what's the cost of that legitimacy? To disconnect yourself, to throw everything that you came from under the bus in the name of coming from something more worthy of you than it actually is. That's the tragedy. No, that's not Dutch. That's certainly one of the elements of the tragedy you just described.

So it's important, I think, to understand that elderhood is not a consequence of age. Elderhood is a cultural function. It's not a personal identity. People go in and out of elderhood in their last part of their lives, according to the circumstances, the needs, the troubles of the times, and the particulars of their place. That's what elderhood is there to serve. When you segregate the notion of elderhood from all of those contexts, you get all this generic talk about elderhood now. That anybody older than you is fair game somehow.

Somehow just permanently on call, like your faceless ancestors. That's what they're there for. When it comes to you that you could use a little top up, then you hit them up. And the rest of the time, what are you doing to sustain them, to see to it that they'll be there in your time of need? And the answer is nothing. More tragedy. The layers of tragedy on this matter are almost fathomless. There's so many things that we've not given ourselves to when we could have done when we were at peak performance, showroom condition earlier in our lives.

Listen to this. It sounds like a geezer story now, but the truth of the matter is I did grow up in a place where you "respected your elders". And that was the term. People would use it from time to time, but not really as a piece of advocacy. They used it as a descriptor. They were describing something that was ongoing and so and wasn't debatable. Didn't need to be debated. It was, in its way, manifested. What happened to that? In a relatively short period of time, who says respect your elders and means it. Who says it non-ironically?

When was the last time you heard it said as a piece of advocacy? For the love of God, respect your elders. You get no takers for that just as a blanket declaration of the fundament of a cultured person. That's what that is, but you'll never get takers for it. Why not? Well, I think one of the things that happened was that phrase was sequestered off from the rest of the phrase. The rest of the phrase went like this, respect your elders as they conduct themselves respectably. That's the other half. 

That's the reciprocity. So what we have now is a situation that can be summed up in a little vignette that occurred to me when I was right at the tail end of finishing the book that was nominally about elderhood I wrote called Come of Age. I'm in Oaxaca, in the city of Oaxaca. I'm just finishing the book. I find myself in a bar, a very unusual circumstance for me, and there's a woman who's maybe 30 years old, and she's that far away. And I haven't been in the game for a long time. So I didn't even know how it works. I never knew then, but I certainly don't know now.

So she just looks at me, and I don't know what that means. So I just nodded back to her. So she walks over, and she says, so what do you do? But she's not even looking at me. She's still scoping the joint. Like an idiot, I think she's asking me a question that deserves an answer, so I answer her. I'm working on this book about-- writing things. In this case, I'm working on a book about elderhood. Elderhood, she said. Why? Just like that. Again, I think she's asking me a question. It's clear she's not.

In retrospect, I realize she wasn't. But I said, I think something happened on  people's way to agedness that waylaid them in some fashion. I didn't get the whole sentence out. She just waved me off. She said, oh, I know what happened. Elderhood? No, wisdom, she said. Wisdom abandoned people your age. And she had her finger like that. Abandoned people your age. We've got it now. That's the tombstone of elderhood, right there, in that little vignette. 

And yet you'd get an awful lot of self-avowed conscious people absolutely aligning with her take on where wisdom resides now as older people have been disqualified in the sightlines of middle age and younger people. Utterly disqualified for reasons we could get into in great detail, but the ecological ferment would be one. So we have very little credibility, anybody my age, in the eyes of people of that age. It's a big generalization, but it's bearing itself out. Yeah.

Luke Storey: [00:23:38] And how does this relate to the phenomenon of-- okay, so if we don't value elderhood and perhaps, as you said, some of the elders maybe aren't deserving of that value because they don't bring a lot of wisdom to the table or they've wasted their lives in futile pursuits and haven't--

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:23:58] Or terrible compromises.

Luke Storey: [00:23:59] Yeah. Or haven't integrated what they've learned or have a means by which to express it. But it seems there's a direct correlation there between how when people tend to age and their health declines as it does, I mean, in many cases very unnaturally and rapidly now because of the way we live sequestered into assisted living, and then the diseases get worse, and then it's hospice. I see just such a sad demise of older people.

And we seem to have, a word that you've used a bit, this phobia around just being present to that decline. The idea of a Westerner taking their ill parent into their home and caring for them throughout the end of their life, I mean, I think it's exceedingly uncommon and seems, even as I say it, a crazy idea. And I love both of my parents, but it's not even-- I mean, I don't know if I would do that.

I hope that I'm a good enough person to do that if the time came, but it's not really what happens. I think we have this inability to face discomfort and to face grief head on. And it seems, as people start to age and begin the dying process, we're so terrified and paranoid of feeling anything other than numb, or comfortable, or happy that we just push it out of our sight, and we don't want to have a tangible relationship with it.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:25:39] Well, what do you suppose the industry of self-improvement is for? How can this be any other result of that enterprise than exactly what you've just described? Who gets into the self-improvement game in order to be moderately content, or to be normally unhappy, or to contend, but not that heroically with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? I ask you, who goes into the self-improvement game to obey the limits of life? There.

Luke Storey: [00:26:17] Yeah. True.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:26:18] That's it. Personal growth. Think about what the word growth actually means. It should not shock you for a second that in oncology land, where I used to work, the word growth is a synonym for tumor. Not success. Tumor. You know that. I know I'm not shocking you here, but if you think about the association, growth for its own sake, whether it's socio-political growth or personal growth, I think is utterly besides the point. Growth for its own sake, untethered to its consequences is sociopathic. Not life affirming. Sociopathic.

So is there an antidote? I don't know about an antidote. Is there a treatment regime? Yeah, there is. What is it? Limits. Frailties. Endings. You want to get educated? That's where you go. You don't go somewhere so you can defy them. They just scraped the remains of five people off the bottom of the ocean, not two weeks ago. For doing what? For trying to extend the limits of what's possible, being exceedingly rich and being able to do so at the same time, of course.

Well, they saw the rich guys sear across the heavens, so let's go to the Titanic. Is there any moral to be derived from this sad, utterly unnecessary, epically wasteful circumstance? The answer is, like on my farm, there's places you don't belong. There. And they don't belong to you either. There. Translate that. Translate limitation, and stop making it an affront to your self-direction. Understand your limits are granted to you, not inflicted upon you. 

Your limits are entrusted to you the same way this body was. When it's time to turn it in, those limits should be there. Not flaunted, and thwarted, and demeaned, and diminished, and sworn off of. So it's no surprise that in a competence addicted culture, when your time comes, when the wind down is manifest, you're full of what? Acceptance? No, you're full of defeat that all your best regime's all your best self-improvements cashed out into what? A twitchy, impossible to govern little sequence of undoings which are somehow beneath you and degrading to you.

You see all of this as a middle-aged person, as a young person, what do you think? You practice how you are, how you're going to be with your ancestors with how you are with your old people. Now your old people will become a tangible manifest example of, whatever you do, don't turn into that. So is it a surprise then, that my country, for example, legalized euthanasia? They don't call it that, but that's what it was before they changed the name and made it more user friendly. Now they call it MAiD, medical assistance in dying. Who doesn't want a MAiD? Do you think it's an accident they called it that?

Luke Storey: [00:29:59] There are no accidents, especially when it comes to marketing.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:30:02] Not many.

Luke Storey: [00:30:04] What's your take on that policy?

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:30:07] The MAiD thing?

Luke Storey: [00:30:07] Yeah.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:30:09] You can guess, but I won't make you guess. The gist of it would be this to me. Canada was a death phobic culture before this experiment with MAiD was entered into. A death phobic culture, legalize euthanasia. What does that tell you about legalizing euthanasia? What it tells me is you can legalize euthanasia and keep your death phobia intact. And that's what we did. People's orientation to the realities of dying haven't improved at some fundamental mythic level in this seven years, I think it is, or eight, something like that.  

We're not better death people as a consequence of this option. Not at all. Our fear of death, if anything, has gone further underground while we imagine ourselves to be well served by this option there at the end of life. Where does the option come from? Is there such a thing as real, intractable, indefensible human suffering? Of course there is. I've seen it. I know what it looks like. Is this what I'm talking about? No.

I'm talking about the vast majority of circumstances that never get that far, that we'll never get there, where MAiD is available to them too. The sad circumstance that I've seen over and over again is that our fear of death is augmented by our ability to duck it one more time in one other way that's now legalized. It's a grief bypass, it seems to me. That you don't have to die. Literally, that's what it means. You don't have to die because you can get killed. And them fighting words. I know they are.

Luke Storey: [00:32:10] Right.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:32:11] But look, I'm not making this up. In the English language that you and I are speaking right now, we have this verb, to die. I ask you now to use the verb to die in the passive voice in a sentence. Because the culture actually understands dying as something that happens to you. It comes somehow from the outside, or from terribly inside to undo you. That's basically the take. So try to use the verb in the passive voice to corroborate this understanding of dying. And you won't be able to do it. Why not?

Because in the English language, the verb to die is, by definition, an active verb. There's no passive voice for it. You can't use the verb to die as something that happens to you. The only way you can say it is it's something you do. The language is trying to help you out on the matter, trying to clarify your thinking. So the only way you can get the passive voice back into the understanding, you've got to change the verb. You either die, that's what you do, or you're killed. That's what happens to you. And that's why you use the word just now.

Luke Storey: [00:33:21] Wow. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:33:25] Sadly.

Luke Storey: [00:33:26] In the thread that you were unraveling around personal growth and personal development, I can see your point on that. In my relationship to that process, which was born out of being an addict for a long time earlier in life and, thankfully, by the grace of God, literally getting sober when I was 26, the name of the game, for me, has been, if you could use one principle, I would say surrender and developing a relationship with God, just to put it plainly.

And it seems to me that the more I allow myself to die, and I don't know if I can articulate this, but maybe you can help me unpack it, I have an awareness that there are parts of me that are dying off all the time. And they're the parts of me that I find that I'm clinging to my expectations, my attachments, my needing to be here, my needing to stay young, my avoidance of death. It's like that. I don't know if it's Greek or where it is derived from, but if you die before you die, when you die, you don't die. I don't know if you've heard that before.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:34:43] Not quite like that, but I follow the logic.

Luke Storey: [00:34:45] Yeah. I mean, I'll find myself, for example, driving around in my car and just go, wow, this is impermanent. This moment right here is fleeting. And I find what is the growth, maybe spiritual growth, or understanding, or unfoldment is rather than avoiding that reality in that moment, but to fully surrender myself into it and to allow myself to feel the grief.

A more profound example would be, and Alyson reminded me of this last night, there have been many times since we've been together where we'll be having a moment, and it's one of those moments of beauty that's just simple. You're taking a walk. You're taking a drive. You're laying in bed. And I'll look at her and feel this depth of love. And at the same time, there's a heartbreak that's present.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:35:46] Yeah. Because they belong together.

Luke Storey: [00:35:50] Because of the impermanence. And so as I feel it now, that's how I'll feel it. It's a great example of what's happening in my body right now. And it's like, I see there's two options. One is to just stuff this down and just stay in the love, and the other part is to just fully express, and feel, and just go, wow, yeah, this really is impermanent, and to just savor. It's almost like a foreshadowing or a forefeeling of the grief that is sure to come at some point because in our forms here, there's going to be a separation at some point, right?

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:36:24] Yeah. I don't think that's in the future. That's in the present. That grief you're describing, you can call it anticipatory if you want to, but when is this happening?

Luke Storey: [00:36:37] Now.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:36:38] Now. Exactly. So the grief about what is to be is here now. It doesn't need to be to happen. You're alert enough as to the transience of the whole deal, to have the alertness inform you now, on your best days, if I may be so bold. And then the rest of your days, you're a lunkhead like the rest of us with no clue whatsoever because somebody cut you off on the road, or whatever it is. All the little things. So speaking of transience, your alertness as to the reality of transience is itself transient and fitful. So how do you submit to that? That's a hard road now to realize that your victory moments are. And then you're back in the grind.

And you don't know where the victory went. And you realize, it's not a victory, you idiot. This doesn't mean you win. That's not what submission is. It's not you secretly win, and you're secretly prevailing now that you get it. You get it very fitfully. All you need is one human being to intrude into your wisdom to undo the whole thing. I'm saying this jokingly. One human being infiltrates your certainties, and the whole thing's for naught again. And if you happen to like them, oh, you're in desperate straits now.

Luke Storey: [00:38:12] Yeah.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:38:13] Right. Okay. So ultimately, a decent response is to laugh at this, the sheer unworkability of our plan, of our scheme, of our self-improvement. It doesn't really belong. What belongs, like I said earlier, is the limitations that were entrusted to you. If you just elaborate that beyond the sense of personal satisfaction and think about unsustainable ways of life that the West is clearly addicted to and has no intention of surrendering voluntarily, you realize, man, a taste of limit that wasn't skewed in the direction of punishment would be an amazing thing.

This is why I can't get close to all the ecological podcast stuff where they love the fact that nature's going to eventually rise up and smite us. They just love that stuff. And whose idea of justice is that? Okay, it's not the world's idea of-- I mean, the naturally occurring world is not invested in annihilating humanity. It doesn't seem to be so to me. That is our solution to ourselves, not the world's solution to us. We're the only one who came up with misanthropy as a legitimate alternative to us being here.

Luke Storey: [00:39:40] Driven by some unsolvable level of guilt too.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:39:46] Guilt. Yeah. Which is nothing to do with conscience. Nothing to do with awareness at all. Guilt is what you do to bypass being aware and being fundamentally responsive to that awareness. I'm not saying that there's not moments. Clearly, there are moments for it. That's not even personal guilt. That's guilt at a national level, for example, for insane wrongdoings, and bad policies, and all the rest.

But guilt never seems to me to have ever produced a conscious human being. A twitchy, self-harming human being, yes, surely. A human being who doesn't trust the body politic? Yes. But not something that you'd long after. That's not guilt's work. Guilt is an identity. It's not work. It's an identity. Take someone released from prison. So they've paid their debt to society, so-called, so they don't owe society anything further from the terrible misadventure that got them there in the first place.

Okay. But they're still guilty, aren't they? Aren't they? They still did the thing they did, didn't they? Correct. That's identity stuff talking. You'll never not be guilty. That's the straitjacket of guilt. As a moral compass, it's a disaster. But the notion of fundamental sorrow and regret is absolutely weapons grade alertness. It really is. Weapons grade, I'm using that to refer to the capacity to undertake some revision of the understanding that until you're guilty, you don't get it. It's weapons grade, in that context, is what I mean.

Luke Storey: [00:41:46] And you said it. Of course, it's fleeting, our awareness and acceptance of our own mortality, of the impermanence, of love, of precious moments. Do you think that that's a healthy practice, as fleeting as it might be? And I ask because I find that the looser are my attachments to the way things are, the easier time I seem to have.

When I think about my own mortality, the more I can have a working relationship with it now seems to make it less scary. Or just thinking about my parents passing or any loss or grief, it seems if I am able to cultivate my ability to experience grief and do my best to not run from it and numb it out, that it actually takes the power out of it in a way.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:42:43] Out of what?

Luke Storey: [00:42:44] Out of the fear of having the feelings. I think so many of us, and I'll speak for myself for sure, I spent so much of my life, and I'm sure I still do in numerous ways, but speaking of addiction, my entire life was around the avoidance of feeling anything, especially something like grief or loss, which I had no capacity to handle.

So it seems the more I can just face the difficulties of life and the challenges head on, they lose their power. They lose their potency. It's like a feeling comes up, like it did a few moments ago talking to you. It would have been a time I would have been terrified to feel any of that. Now it's just it's a little wave that passes through, and then you just keep it moving.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:43:29] Yeah. Temporarily. You got to put that at the end of the sentence, no? 

Luke Storey: [00:43:35] Temporarily.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:43:35] Yeah. Otherwise, you say, oh, I got the new skin. This is what I go dancing in, to use Peter Gabriel's lyric there. Yeah. Look, your victories are temporary. Your realizations are temporary. If I were to ever to recommend anything to anybody that I think constitutes a pretty good practice that really doesn't have much downside, it would be this. I saw the people who had the hardest time dying were the bloated people. I don't mean physically. 

I mean the sense of all the accretions they managed during the course of their lives. With the oncoming ness of symptoms and all of that downturn stuff, they maintained everything they could of their former life, their former sense of themselves, and so on. They died the hardest, almost across the board.

So let's use the example of your stuff. You got to find guitar collection, I notice. We could talk about it later, maybe. I envy it, of course. But I'm saying, if you have a lot of stuff, you come in towards the end of your life, you're going to you're just going to have a hard time. Why? Because that stuff is attached to you in some fashion. That's why you still have it. Come on now. One of the greatest practices is to watch your stuff walk out the door in somebody else's hands. It just is.

Luke Storey: [00:45:08] Yeah.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:45:08] And that's good practice for everything we're talking about now. And here's the thing. I'm not saying it's necessarily good for you. And maybe I'm talking about the guy who's walking out the door with one of your guitars.  Okay. So the extent to which the good stuff circulates is the extent to which we don't do too badly. I don't mean just in terms of personal-- sorry, I keep touching that microphone. Survival. I don't mean survival.

I mean that the world is, in some incremental way, slightly better off as a consequence of our departure from it than it was when we were clinging to it. That's what I mean. That is doable. You don't need a massive revolution in consciousness. You don't need 40,000 people to go along with you. You don't need a movement on the Internet to do what I'm talking about. You just need to find a way to say goodbye to your stuff while you still can. So when do you start? Now. There's nothing to wait for vis-a-vis dying.

Luke Storey: [00:46:14] Right. When I'm 80, I'll start to thin out the herd.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:46:17] Yeah, sure. When I can't play anymore, then I'll start-- that kind of thing.

Luke Storey: [00:46:21] And when you say stuff, I'm assuming that that would also be the constructs of who you think you are in the world, right?

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:46:31] Of course. Because you're not going to let go of your stuff if that other half is not happening. Or if you do, God bless you, because against all of your inclinations, you're just parting with something, and you hate doing so. It's a Scrooge moment. Do you remember the famous Dickens story?

Luke Storey: [00:46:51] Yeah.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:46:51] That thing about he's learning what it means to give, which he never knew about because he was busy calculating what he had and trying not to lose it. Those people don't die. Well, and that's what that Christmas Carol story is about. Clearly, it's not about Christmas. It's about generosity. Generosity of spirit is not a good replacement for generosity with your stuff. If you're going to choose between the two, be generous with your stuff, and don't worry about your spirit too much, I would say.

But of course, these things go together. You part with stuff against your own inclinations, your spirit, bitching and griping will follow. But if you wait for your spirit to get it all figured out first, your stuff is going to coagulate in the basement till the cows come home. So better to act and then have your feelings catch up.

Luke Storey: [00:47:44] Many people face death as a result of illness. And because we like to avoid pain, and there's an entire industry there set up to prolong life and for the avoidance of pain, I'm assuming, in your experience, that many people were heavily medicated at the time of death and losing whatever sense of presence they had.

I mean, I know what it's like to be on painkillers, for example, and you're not all there. And so I have a curiosity around end of life comfort as a value versus end of life presence. And I feel, sitting here as a healthy 52-year old guy, that, oh, I'm going to go for the presence, but you put me in the hospice bed, am I going to want the Dilaudid IV because it's so uncomfortable?

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:48:42] Yes. And maybe the reason that Dilaudid is so compelling doesn't have much to do with physical symptoms after all. Has to do with your deep uneasiness with the notion of all the unspectaculars of the time you're talking about now, like not being able to be in the bathroom by yourself, as a classic. When people talk about dignity, they talk about when life's no longer worth living, you know what they're talking about much more often than not? Whether they can be in a bathroom by themselves.

That's where the dignity apparently lives. So I'm not saying it's superfluous. I'm not. But I'm saying that we might want to relocate our sense of dignity. So it's more in keeping with these limits that we're talking about and less infatuated with supremacy, mastery, and competence. Mastery and competence, not your best friend when you're dying.

Luke Storey: [00:49:44] Have you ever heard the story about Aldous Huxley's death?

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:49:49] Remind me.

Luke Storey: [00:49:51] He was an early adopter of LSD as a therapeutic for the hippie culture, and it became a recreational or consciousness-expanding drug, etc. And on his deathbed, he requested that his wife give him 100 micrograms of acid, and he checked out in an LSD journey. And from her account, had a beautiful experience. To me, that sounds just absolutely terrifying. But from a certain perspective, one could see that-- I mean, if you're anything when you're in an LSD experience, you're present to a different level of reality, an interdimensional reality. 

And I know because I've had so many experiences where my reality went really dark. I mean, I'm going way back in years, but still there was something more tangible in those experiences than just your normal waking state. To me, that story stood out because it's such a different account of how most people die, and her experience of him just being in a complete surrender, and joy, and love, and just being there for it in a profound way, it's the antithesis of running away from the experience, I think. To me, that seems like the opposite of taking a bunch of opiates and just checking out because the whole thing emotionally and physically is just too demanding, and terrifying, and painful.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:51:31] You think the motivation is different between the two options?

Luke Storey: [00:51:34] Well, maybe the motivation is the same. It's just different mechanism of action to get you there.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:51:40] I don't know. It's not my thing. I don't know about it. It wasn't as on-coming as it is now when I was working in the trade. But I could make this observation, I think, could be helpful regarding what you're saying. People tend to die in the manner of their living. We count on the notion that there's certain peak experiences in life that are going to deliver you from you long enough to give you an unabated choice, and you're going to exercise the choice wisely. That's the assumption.

But I didn't see that, I have to tell you. I didn't see everybody on the planet die in a given year. Obviously not. And I don't know that thousands makes what I'm saying more true or less true. But for what it's worth, just to consider, if you die in the manner of your living, then the spectacular delivery system that you're imagining where you can finally leave yourself behind is the final victory of this self you're trying to leave behind. A very hollow victory indeed. To cease. 

Anyway, I can't pretend that there's a solution sitting there for all of these death terrors that's invariable and is going to work for everybody, and should work, and should be available, and nobody should have to die suffering. I just can't. I can't collude with the notion that suffering somehow doesn't belong. I can't. So I don't set myself the task of obliterating human suffering. 

There's an element of suffering. I don't know if we're talking about degree here or kind. I don't know. But suffering belongs, near as I can tell. The same way that things that hurt you belong, the fact that they hurt you doesn't disqualify them. The fact that there's stuff you shouldn't eat doesn't mean it shouldn't be in the world. But they belong. Your hurt belongs.

Luke Storey: [00:53:56] Sometimes our hurt is our biggest gift. Some of the hurts I've experienced in my life have, in hindsight, benefited me more than when things were going well and easily. You know what I mean?

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:54:09] I understand. You can tell I'm veering away from the hero stories, the Huxley kind of stories. I just do. Just congenitally, I do. Why? At any given time, let's just pull a number out of the sky, 400 people are dying. Everybody knows the story of the one of the 400 people that didn't die on schedule, didn't die as expected, didn't die badly, and so on. Everybody knows one of those stories that defies the odds, pulled it off, heroic, and all the rest. 

Nobody tells the stories of the 399. I do. Why? I'm not saying they cancel out the one, but I'm not saying that the one cancels out the 399 either. So my thing is this. Let somebody tell the story of the heroic one person who defied the odds of death. I'll tell the story of the 399 people who died on schedule in a way that was so predictable given how they lived. And we get all the 400 stories told. That I can live with.

But the notion that we got to eliminate the 399 so they can all become the one is a monstrous, monstrous, ghostly proposition that is indefensible and, frankly, cruel and intolerant, near as I can tell. I mean, where's the room for frailty and failure if you keep telling hero stories? But futility, and failure, and fear, these things belong, man. How you are with them, not how you are without them is the story to me.

Luke Storey: [00:55:57] So if how you die is how you live, then it seems we'd be best served to really focus on living well.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:56:04] Well, but not to the exclusion of what we're talking about. Because as you so properly said and teared up when you said it, how do you come to alertness about this matter? When your life's going good, nobody ever came to me and said, everything's going great. I thought it was time to talk about dying. Never happens. Never going to happen. There's something about things going well, it gets you off the scent of the big things.

I'm not saying you should seek out destruction and destitution. I'm just saying, let's just be alert that when things are going well, that'll do. You're not that much of a seeker when things are going well, in fairness to us all. So there's something about things going off the rails that turns into something that could be exceedingly useful as long as you don't try to convert it into another secret victory game.

And if you don't, and you let your defeats defeat you, then you realize, along with, I think it was Rilke who made this observation, we're not here to prevail. We're here to be defeated by greater and greater things. In other words, you up your game on the manner by which you can be undone. And that's your nobility. Not how you resist being undone. The quality of what undid you is something to brag about.

Luke Storey: [00:57:31] Amen.

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:57:32] Amen.

Luke Storey: [00:57:33] Who have been three teachers or teachings that have most profoundly impacted your work?

Stephen Jenkinson: [00:57:39] Three. Lord. Well, I love Seamus Heaney's work as a working, politically alert poet in a hard time in Ireland. And he had something to say to a lot of us who have nothing to do with being Irish. One Seamus Heaney. The other guy I'm thinking of eclipses all the other thoughts I could think. So I went to Harvard Divinity School. I wanted to go into priesthood of something or other. That's literally as close as I got. They discovered in the act of vetting me that I'd never been to church, which I didn't think was an obstacle. They clearly did.

That's a true story. So I didn't get in. I got into the school, but I got way late into the academic program. No white collar program for this guy. This worked out, I would say. But still, I was defeated, man. In the same week, I met an old black man who's self-identified as a storyteller. That's what he was. That's what he did. I thought storytelling was a ghetto for kids' entertainers. I didn't have any idea what it meant. And I didn't hold in any regard at all, but he saw me in a crowd, and he said, "You should come to my class."

And I said, "I just got disqualified for the whole program." He said, "You should come to my class." I'm thinking, this is Harvard. You can't mess around with which class you go to. I agreed to come just to check it out, just to get him off my case, basically. This man, well, I apprenticed with him for about seven years. That's how it started, though. In a week of defeat, he said, you'll do. And I was his band, basically. I accompanied him in all kinds of tours.

I could tell you the running away to the circus stories with him. But the one that answers your question better is this is a guy who is so incandescent and so capable as a human being. His example was relentless, anarchic, and tyrannous. It was not an easy guy to be around because he was so utterly human and unapologetically so. I don't mean flawed when I say it, although certainly that's true. I mean, he was a master, finally, of tragedy. Funny as he was, but he was a master of tragedy as a practitioner, as an understander, and as an advocate.

Most of his stories came from there. He knew the whole Shakespearean canon by heart. All the parts by heart, man. And he could do it in iambic pentameter, the whole thing. Then he did exactly the same stuff in black idiomatic slang. I mean, he was unbelievable. He was rapping before there was such a word, before anybody talked about it. And I was in on the ground floor of seeing somebody do it. So what happens? Well, he steals from me. What do you mean? I mean, I met him as a 21-year old, 20, maybe. 

I was slouching at the threshold of adulthood, the way so many North Americans do, and saying, don't ask me, or whatever my attitude at the time was. No instruction whatsoever. Simply by his vivid and livid example, he took that from me. Why? Because I saw the real thing. And I was defeated, in principle, in my self-absorption by seeing the real thing. I was 10 years in the desert as a consequence of meeting him, 10 years when our arrangement  dissolved because of visa, and nationality things, and all that. And necessity.

Because it was enough, as it turned out. But man, 10 years in the desert wherein I got married and had kids and tried to straighten up and fly right, and all that sort of thing. Ten years in the desert, trying to live out the gap between what I'd seen and being with him, and all the realities of life that were seem to be available to me, none of which could begin to approximate what I'd seen. 

I didn't know how to live what I saw, that's what I'm saying. And without that, I'm not sitting here. You'd never be interested in anything I came up with. That's where it comes from. It comes from being defeated by a master practitioner of eloquence. Defeat will get you there a lot faster than victory will.

Luke Storey: [01:02:22] You got a third one?

Stephen Jenkinson: [01:02:24] He's two. That's three altogether. Him and Seamus Heaney is three people.

Luke Storey: [01:02:32] Hey, Cookie.

Stephen Jenkinson: [01:02:33] His name was Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill. I say that with a great reverence, but he was not known that way by anybody really who had heard of him in the public domain because he had what he called a street name that he performed with, not a different persona. He was that guy all the time, relentlessly implacably that guy. But his street name was Brother Blue. And that's how you can find him if you-- 

Luke Storey: [01:02:58] Oh, cool.

Stephen Jenkinson: [01:02:59] Yeah. I don't look at this stuff because my memories are too vivid, and I can't survive exposure to YouTube. What?

Luke Storey: [01:03:10] Well, hello.

Stephen Jenkinson: [01:03:11] Do I deserve this? Is that it? You know I'm allergic, don't you?

Luke Storey: [01:03:14] Are you really?

Stephen Jenkinson: [01:03:15] Yeah. But don't worry about it.

Luke Storey: [01:03:16] Scoot her off.

Stephen Jenkinson: [01:03:19] He's got plans. I got two dogs at home, but they're outdoor dogs only.

Luke Storey: [01:03:23] For those listening, Cookie just dive-bombed Stephen. We're going to put all of your work and the people that you just mentioned in the show notes at lukestorey.com/stephen. I forgot to mention that earlier in the conversation. Man, thank you so much--

Stephen Jenkinson: [01:03:39] Thank you too.

Luke Storey: [01:03:40] For coming by. Pleasure to meet you, and I look forward to chatting with you again. I feel like I could ask you questions for quite a while.

Stephen Jenkinson: [01:03:48] We're not done.

Luke Storey: [01:03:49] Yeah. Yeah, it was fun. I appreciate it. I know you guys are on tour and in between dates, and I'm so grateful we're able to sit down in person and share some space and have tea.

Stephen Jenkinson: [01:03:59] Me too.


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