On this site we discuss the large predicaments the world faces. Questions that often arise are: Given these challenges, how should I be? What outlook and behaviors will better help me meet what’s coming? Is there anything that can even be done at all?
This week’s podcast gets existential with us. I sit down with Stephen Jenkinson, an author and deep-thinker who a number of Peak Prosperity readers have requested come on the show. Jenkinson’s specialization is grief and dying — through his decades of work in these fields, he has developed a series of observations on what it means to live, and thereby die, with meaning.
A heads up: the path of this conversation is somewhat metaphysical. But the topics addressed are important; ones our society needs to start having some honest discussion about. Things like how to face our mistakes, errors and shortcomings openly — as with addiction, only with acknowledgment and acceptance of our condition can we then move on to self-betterment.
Jenkinson observes how, culturally, we are so averse to unpleasantness that we suppress the very conditions that are necessary for positive transformation:
The hearing in the popular culture goes something like this: Get good at grief so you can get on the other side of it, so you don’t have to do it anymore. That’s what getting good at grief is, even like having a good relationship with this grief, so it won’t bite you in the ass too badly, kind of thing.
I am saying that grief is, in and of itself, a skillfulness of being a human being. It is not something you have a relationship with. It is that which in a deeply disciplined way, you practice. You’re partly being pursued by it at times, both of which has hopefully the purpose of a deep kind of introduction that you cannot turn away from again. Because it has made a claim upon you and it has the order of necessity about it, not the order of affliction. So it’s not a matter of declawing and defanging grief until it sits quietly in your lap like a poodle. Not at all, no. Grief is a human-scaled mystery. That is what it is.
In medieval times, in northern Europe in particular, in the monastic life, there are stations that you awaken through the course of the evening, deep into the night, and into the early dawn, where you are at different layers of prayer and contemplation and so on. I am told that one of the contemplative exercises for those people in that time was to say in a kind of chanting fashion, a Latin term, lacrimae rerum, which translates fairly readily for us as “the tears that are in all things”. They would not say it in order to dry the tears that are in all things, they would say it so that it could be known, that the deep facts of life require endings in order for things to proceed. This insight visits human beings as an awareness of your end before your end actually comes: the possibility of you deepening your life as a direct consequence of realizing how fundamentally limited it is in time, and in consequence, and in import.
What life is, is oftentimes tormenting, broken, a place where as my countryman who has recently died said, a crack where the light gets in. and that’s it. So, to be deeply intolerant of limits, essentially dooms you to a project of unrestrained, unfettered, and untethered growth.
If your project is to live a mutually nourishing life, then to be restrained in that regard is to be disciplined so that your capacities serve something. And in so doing, you recognize how much on the receiving end of being served you have been. Which is of course what our childhood is for. And the ending of our childhood is often accomplished by recognizing how deeply on the take we have been without ever recognizing it. And sometimes you get to live long enough where you can go…where you can turn to your parent and you can say, I’m sorry, I had no idea for the longest time. And of course your parent would probably say, yeah, I know. And there it is, at the level of family.
Well, what kind of planetary being can we turn to now and say, I’m sorry; I had no idea?
Click the play button below to listen to one of my all-time favorite interviews with Stephen Jenkinson (73m:46s).