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As We Lay Dying ~ Stephen Jenkinson On How We Deny Our Mortality by Erik Hoffner for Sun Magazine

Stephen Jenkinson wants to teach us how to die well. It’s a skill he believes we have forgotten in our culture. Though not a physician — he has master’s degrees in theological studies and social work — he served for years as program director of a palliative-care center at a major Toronto teaching hospital, where he provided counseling at hundreds of deathbeds. In his job he heard over and over from colleagues that “everyone has their own way of dying,” but he says he rarely saw any evidence of this. The default manner of death was for the dying person to endure — to not die — for as long as possible.

The other mantra he heard is “Everyone knows they are going to die,” but in Jenkinson’s experience the opposite is true: the vast majority of people are caught off guard, unprepared even after having been given a terminal diagnosis. Doctors are so accustomed to holding out the chance of survival, Jenkinson says, that they often encourage hope where there is none — and thus discourage patients from dealing with the difficult business of death. It’s an approach that arises from compassion, but for Jenkinson it doesn’t allow the end of life to be what it should be: an important event, like being born or getting married. “We end without any ending,” he writes. “We are gone without any leaving.”

In his most recent book, Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, Jenkinson describes a visit with a minister who has terminal lung cancer and is still preaching sermons every week. “Are you talking about your illness in your sermons?” Jenkinson asks. “Oh, no,” the minister replies. “Too depressing.” Jenkinson points out that when Jesus knew his death was approaching, he didn’t keep going about his days as if nothing were wrong. He gathered his apostles for the Last Supper. He fed them. He told them he was about to die. It’s a defining moment in Christianity — and a stark contrast to the modern expectation that dying patients should ignore the inevitable, stay positive, and, as Jenkinson puts it, “not let them see you sweat.”

The documentary Griefwalker, produced in 2008 by the National Film Board of Canada, accompanies Jenkinson on visits with the terminally ill and also shows him paddling his canoe and working with his wife, Nathalie, on their Orphan Wisdom Farm in Canada’s Ottawa Valley. In the film Jenkinson talks about the truism that patients fear pain most of all. Even in the absence of pain, however, Jenkinson has witnessed a deeper fear: the fear of dying. We might think that everyone’s scared to die, but Jenkinson believes this anxiety is not universal. He says it’s far more prevalent in our culture, which persuades people to resist and deny the inevitability of their own death. In one scene he talks to a woman with terminal cancer who has had a hospital bed delivered to her home but hides it away rather than use it. When he asks why, she says she doesn’t want to be reminded of what’s to come. Jenkinson advises her not to “put away” her dying for some future date but to treat it as a “prized possession,” because it’s the awareness of death — and not happiness or positivity or stoicism — that allows us to live fully in the time we have. If we think there will always be more time down the road, we put off both our dreams and our obligations.

Born in 1954, Jenkinson grew up in a suburb of Toronto. As a young man he traveled the U.S. with street preacher and storyteller Brother Blue. The two had met while Jenkinson was attending Harvard Divinity School, where Brother Blue — whose real name was Hugh Morgan Hill — taught a class on preaching from the pulpit. Hill was also a familiar sight on the streets of Cambridge, where he improvised stories and verses for passersby. Jenkinson began to accompany the older man on harmonica, and they took their act on the road, performing in bars and jails as well as on sidewalks. It was an apprenticeship that helped Jenkinson develop the calm yet powerful speaking style he has today.

On his farm Jenkinson operates the Orphan Wisdom School, where he teaches his concept of living and dying well. In addition to Die Wise, he is the author of How It All Could Be: A Work Book for Dying People and Those Who Love Them and Money and the Soul’s Desires: A Meditation. A quietly charismatic man who wears his long gray hair in braids, Jenkinson often travels for speaking engagements that coincide with screenings of Griefwalker. I met him for this interview on a sunny afternoon in 2014 in a hotel room near Worcester, Massachusetts. The film had been shown the night before, and he was scheduled to give a talk titled “Grief, Then Gratitude.” Gratitude, for Jenkinson, is not just being grateful for what we have. It’s how we should approach all of life, giving thanks for the good and the bad, the beginnings and the endings.

Read the full interview online.

Money Talk

Jul 8, 2015


Tim Wilson, the Director of Griefwalker interviewed Stephen Jenkinson about money at the time “Money and the Soul’s Desires” was first published, in a piece filmed for Vision TV.

(Tim) I want to talk about some of the deep difficulties that many people have with money. I recall a story you told me about the person you were training with as a therapist. You had a financial arrangement with him, and one week you decided on your own to put off payment for a short while. And he turned on you with quite a strong response…

(Steve) Yeah, he did. I thought it would just be O.K., and eventually he looked up at me in that kind of end-of-the-millennium tone he could invoke, and he said ‘Why me?’

I was so taken aback. And you see this is the naiveté we bring to these things. I thought we understood each other. I thought understanding would translate to the forgiveness of debt temporarily, and I thought that’s how he would translate his compassion and understanding for me. I mean his generosity of spirit was to make sure that I didn’t lose track of how awkward and difficult this moment was. But if you’re on the other end, you anticipate that generosity means you get off the hook gently.

So one of the things money does is keep you firmly impaled — unless we enter a conspiracy where neither one of us will talk about it. That’s how family life around money goes.

Nobody welcomes that kind of attention, because it’s unbecoming. All of us know that too much fascination with money is unbecoming. And then it has this kind of mysterious and filthy overtone, so we shouldn’t talk about it too much, because we become base by doing so.

Of course money isn’t filthy. Money isn’t anything, really. It’s as without identity as possible to be. It has no form, shape, or meaning in and of itself. Like Velcro it picks up everything you want to attribute to it. It can absorb infinitely all projections that everyone would make upon it, and that’s the genius of money. It’s not constrained in any way. It can be generosity one minute, betrayal the next, support one moment and domination and control the next ..

Money is conceivably potentially inexhaustible. There can always be more, there’s never enough. In that way psychologically it resembles what we call in this game the inexhaustible breast. The inexhaustible breast doesn’t mean it’s always there, which is one of the great cruelties of childhood that you cried and it wasn’t in your mouth immediately, but money has that way of working.

It can promise the world .. it doesn’t necessarily deliver. And in that promise everything inside us that yearns for what’s limitless, bounteous, the Garden of Eden in other words, comes forward, in spite of ourselves, in spite of our good judgment, and whatever we’ve acquired in the interim that tells us, ‘oh that not’s quite true,’ but you feel it anyhow ..

(Tim) What do you mean? What exactly comes forward in us?

(Steve) The longing to be cared for without measure, without limit, unconditionally. Like when I went into the supervisor’s office and I said ‘I’m sure you can let this one go.’ That was a gesture directly in that area. You’ll take care of me, and the sign will be, you’ll let me off with the money.

It’s welcome when it’s appropriate at a certain age, but when you become older and no one can take the place of the one who seemed to promise all, the bitterness over that seeming to be promised and not coming forward is enormous, monumental. Of course it happens most emphatically in families, and it happens in families most emphatically around these money questions, because money so clearly resembles that inexhaustible potential. If it’s inexhaustible, and I don’t have it, there’s cruelty in the universe, you see ..

(Tim) Well here’s a situation that many people our age are finding themselves in, to do with inheritances. When my father died, part of me felt I never got from him what in money terms what he might have owed me. And it was quite a tear, I was quite anxious about that. It brought up feelings of ‘I never got …’

(Steve) And probably the feeling that you should never have had that feeling..

(Tim) Exactly ..

(Steve) Here’s the thing, This is what happens in this room all the time. Something comes up like that, and the first thing is to wish that away, as if that’s undignified, unbecoming of your position as a son and the oldest, etc. Now he’s dead and you’re sticking the lance in, so to speak. See, the great service done to you by that inheritance was the opportunity to taste, very viscerally probably, your sense that he hadn’t done enough ..

Tim: Whether that’s true or not …

Yeah. And the answer is it’s true and not true. Of course it’s true he didn’t do enough .. But by what measure? By the measure of what you wanted and yearned for, and whatever his limitations as a person were, and however his generosity didn’t translate into your terms, and on and on. And money gave you that opportunity to see and feel all that, unwelcome though it may be. But what a wonderful thing ..

(Tim): Another thing that came up after going through ‘I didn’t get enough was ..’well, I didn’t earn this in any way’ .. and there was guilt around that, too …

(Steve): And now what? Whose money is this? What did I do for this? Oh yeah. There’s no safety, eh? No way to not feel these things. So of course the nature of my work is to invite people constantly into the feeling of it. And 
And in this way I say that money gives you the opportunity to experience yourself authentically in spite of your inclination to the contrary …

(Tim) In spite of my inclination not to look at it, like you with your supervisor ..

(Steve) … Not to be authentic with yourself. And you see we damn money for this — at our own peril. I’m not saying to elevate it, I’m just saying, let it use you in this way, as you attempt to use it, because it’s very reciprocal. It’ll use you to get the truth out, money will. I know I’m talking about it as if it has its own mind, but it has a genius. Its emptiness is its genius. and it magnifies that which you are anyhow.

If you refuse to be tainted by money struggles, then you give up an opportunity to become spiritually enriched, disciplined, informed, and then you cut yourself as a potential example of being that way to others, see? Why? All because you’d like it to be simpler than it is. You’d like it to be cleaner than it is, and a lot less confounding than it is.

Money has the wonderful power to again attach you to the world, when the spiritual inclination of course is to lift off, and glide. And money says ‘No, you were born in this world, in this flesh, and I will nail you again to the wheel of this world, so that you leave nothing behind, and you can stand finally some way of contending.’ That’s all. You don’t have to win, you have to play. That’s what money says — “Play.”

© 1996 VISION TV