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, truly needed, 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 nourishes some time to come. 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
culture activist, teacher, author and ceremonialist
Stephen teaches internationally and is the creator and principal instructor of the Orphan Wisdom School, founded in 2010. With Master’s degrees from Harvard University (Theology) and the University of Toronto (Social Work), he is revolutionizing grief and dying in North America. Stephen is redefining what it means to live, and die well. Apprenticed to a master storyteller, he has worked extensively with dying people and their families, is former programme director in a major Canadian hospital, former assistant professor in a prominent Canadian medical school, consultant to palliative care and hospice organizations and educator and advocate in the helping professions. He is also a sculptor, traditional canoe builder whose house won a Governor General’s Award for architecture.
He is the author of Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul (2015), Homecoming: The Haiku Sessions – a live recorded teaching (2013), 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 former contributing author to Palliative Care – Core Skills and Clinical Competencies (2007).
Stephen Jenkinson is also the subject of the feature length documentary film Griefwalker (National Film Board of Canada, 2008), a lyrical, poetic portrait of his work with dying people.
The Orphan Wisdom School is for anyone with a desire to be useful to those who will inherit an endangered and often dangerous world. It is for those who have an instinct and a desire to be an ancestor worthy of being claimed. It is for those wishing to learn something of the skills of grace in a graceless time, of mentorship and fierce and exemplary compassion. It is for elders in training.
Young people need and deserve real recognition of their worth and purpose in life, and a living example of enduring discernment and courage for the hard and often empty times that are upon us all. The esteem of parents and friends can only go so far: elders must bring the rest. Grandparents must be grand not only for their children’s children, but for all the young ones coming into the world now. Their status as grand people comes from having wrangled wisdom from experience, and from having become elders more than senior citizens. Grandparents must now be elders even – especially – when no one asks it of them.
Stephen lives a handmade off the grid life on a farm beside the River of Abundance and Time in the Ottawa Valley in Ontario, Canada.
His books, recordings and the Griefwalker DVD are available for purchase at the Orphan Wisdom Shop.
To inquire about Stephen Jenkinson’s work, speaking engagements, counsel, media interviews, and school, please contact us.