Orphans are not people who have no parents: they are people who don’t know their parents, who cannot go to them. Ours is a culture built upon the ruthless foundation of mass migration, but it is more so now a culture of people unable to say who their people are. In that way we are, relentlessly, orphans. Being an orphan culture does not mean that we have no wisdom. But wisdom is being confused in our time with information. Wisdom is an achievement, hard earned and faithfully paid for; it’s not a possession.
Not knowing where you are from is not the same thing as being from nowhere, but it does mean that there is work of all kinds to be done. It could be that the only way for successful refugees to make a culture from their flight is to first be faithful witnesses to what their ancestry now asks of them, instead of what it might have fated them to be. Our culture, if a culture it can be called, or all those things we have instead of a culture, has come to a time of savage despair, it seems. We surround ourselves with generations of the debris of refugeehood, to fill the hollow of orphanhood. We have become a danger to ourselves, and a menace to all who will come after us and to the world. We abandon our dead to make our way, and we are mostly singular people. We might now be the twilight of our ancestors’ dream.
An orphan wisdom might be the only culture-making thing we can rightly, honourably or faithfully claim. There is immense grief in knowing this well and going towards it anyway. That grief could be our way of working now, our labour. It could be our beauty, too.
In an information-drunk culture like our own, knowledge must be the life-tested skill of gathering what is needed to make life live, without killing life by getting what we want. You could say that knowledge gathers wood and flint and gut. Wisdom must be the place where that knowledge is fired, forged and annealed to become something of great beauty, useful to the world. You could say that wisdom conjures a cranky, playable fiddle from what knowledge gathers. Human culture is made when that beauty swells into life and dies to nourish a time we won’t live to see. You could say that people who have been bathed in grief and a love for life play some small, magnificence on those fiddles together and sing their unknown songs to each other, and make human culture.
Welcome to Orphan Wisdom, the home of Stephen Jenkinson’s writing and teaching work. Orphan Wisdom is a teaching house and a learning house for the skills of deep living and making human culture. It is a redemptive project that comes from where we come from. It is rooted in knowing history, being claimed by ancestry, working for a time we may not see.
About Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW spiritual activist, teacher, author and ceremonialist
With counseling and ceremony, Stephen Jenkinson has for a quarter century been guiding individuals, couples, families and communities through all the human sufferings, sorrows and confusions in life.
He has Master’s degrees from Harvard University (Theology) and the University of Toronto (Social Work). After an apprenticeship to a musician storyteller he worked with dying people and their families, with grieving people and with those unsure how to grieve. As a programme director in a major Canadian hospital, an assistant professor in a prominent Canadian medical school and an educator and advocate in the helping professions, spiritual activist Stephen Jenkinson consulted to palliative care and hospice organizations. He is revolutionizing grief and dying in North America.
A sculptor and traditional canoe builder and whose house won a Governor General’s Award for architecture, Stephen is a sought after educator and workshop leader, and his work has been featured in national radio and television documentaries on care of the dying and rites of passage.
He is the author of How it All Could Be: A work book for dying people and those who love them (2009), Angel and Executioner: Grief and the Love of Life – a live recorded teaching (2009), and Money and The Soul’s Desires: A Meditation (2002), and contributing author to Palliative Care – Core Skills and Clinical Competencies (2007).
Stephen Jenkinson is also the subject of Griefwalker (2008), a National Film Board of Canada feature documentary film , a lyrical, poetic portrait of Stephen’s work with dying people. Griefwalker shows Stephen teaching the redemptive power of deep love for life, when life glimpses its end.
He lives beside an old river in the Ottawa Valley in Ontario, Canada. Stephen’s books, recordings and the Griefwalker DVD are available for purchase from the Orphan Wisdom Shop.