The Meaning of Death - Stephen Jenkinson
Syndicated from, Aug 07, 2013

8 minute read


In January this year, I flew out to attend my first full session of the Orphan Wisdom school, founded by Stephen Jenkinson and his wife Nathalie. The term “orphan” is a odd one to combine with wisdom, a juxtaposition that Stephen is fond of replicating according to the 9 months I’ve known him. An orphan after all, is not someone who has no parents. An orphan is one who does not know their parents.

On the surface, it’s hard to remember exactly what transpired during those seven days. I gathered in the Ger (a traditional Mongolian yurt) each day on Stephen’s ice-covered land, hugging the Bonnechere River, joined by other scholars. We discussed the ancient English poem Beowulf. We excavated the etymology of words as delicately as rare pottery from the old world. We ate meat and vegetables raised on their own land, offered with a story of how they came to grow, and ultimately, taken.

And on the final evening, near the stroke of midnight, we conjured a collective experience so potent, so real, that I continually question whether it happened at all.

In the morning, I bid goodbye to the scholars, and was left with Stephen, a steaming cup of tea, and the fading light of the afternoon. A piece of our conversation became “The Meaning of Death” which you can watch below (presented, or perhaps more accurately, provoked by Marc Erlbaum, who is collecting musings on the meaning of life).

Watch my new short: The Meaning of Death (6 mins)

Needless to say, it was challenging to condense even a minutiae of Stephen’s work into a 6 minute short film. Our intention is to collaborate on a future feature-length documentary, still unnamed, but no doubt, gathering in the Mystery. My friend Mia, a longtime scholar of Stephen’s, said it most beautifully:

“Dropping into such a telling may stand to open something that may not have breathed for thousands of years. In the process, I imagine we all too will come to that uncommon breath.”

In the meantime, I offer various outtakes of our interview below. Please accept as a gift, to mull over at the least expected moments, to return again and again, like a mandala that reveals itself only with a willingness to drop your “knowing” and begin the hard work of Remembering.

On depression:

“Depression, and the treatment of depression, the counselling of depression, the identification of depression, and the coping with depression [...] It used to be plastics, you remember in The Graduate? That’s the advice, plastics? If I was that guy beside the pool talking to Dustin Hoffman I’d say, “Depression.” You want a future? There it is. It’s a huge growth industry.

At the same time the culture seems utterly compelled—no, devoted–to it’s own happiness. It seems strange until you let them collide. If you let them collide there’s nothing strange about it at all because one actually gives birth to the other. And it’s the happiness thing that comes first, it’s not the despair.

The devotion to personal contentment is the depression machine, it generates the depression. It makes the depression inevitable which of course obliges you to work harder to be happy and there we are. But how does it do that? Because it whispers to you that happiness should be the discernible consequence of you winning, of you trying hard, of your best intent being in the forefront of all your design.

And a lot of people in the world, ancestrally, knew long ago that that being content or that sense of well-being, that’s a consequence of your willingness to help the world live. That your happiness is actually a corollary—let me change happiness—that your health is a corollary of the health of everything around you.”


On being on the take:

“If you talk about human culture, the travail is sometimes cumulative but always personal awakening to the fact that I, you, we have been so uniformly and without hesitation on the take from the earliest get-go. And that’s the crisis, that’s the travail. Not “being on the take”, but realizing it, awakening to this. So you say, what do you mean on the take?

Well, it’s pretty basic. You think about your food. No matter where your food comes from and how local it may be, there’s still all manner of things that have died to keep you alive, and there’s nothing in your way of life that reflects any awareness of that. If anything, our way of life reflects an unwillingness for that to intrude on our sense of well-being and peace of mind. That’s what I see. So you see the crisis is still waiting to happen here.

I don’t think it’s a poor choice of words to say crisis. We use the word crisis to describe something that shouldn’t be or shouldn’t happen. I’m using the word to say the crisis is determined by our unwillingness to know it, that’s what makes it critical. But the world dies to keep us alive. Fortunately not all the world at the same time, at least so far. We’ll see. Or maybe we won’t see.”

On the crisis of culture:

“The great calamity of awakening to what it means to be a human being is the making of human being. And I think human culture is made in the same fashion, that we’re trying to grapple with the consequence of our presence in the world, and the grappling is how the culture’s made.

So we wake into the idea that we have racked up a really inextinguishable debt as a consequence of just rattling around, and then you have one of two choices where this debt’s concerned and one is to do your utter damnedest to cancel it – you know with good intent and maybe even paying a little interest.

That’s great, but what it says is the indebtedness is the problem. But the law of life surely says indebtedness is not the problem, indebtedness is life. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. So you trying to get out of debt in this fashion turns out to be how you wage war on life. All groups of people who wage war on life surely cannot be called cultures. Call ‘em what you will. My preferred name for them would be syndrome, syndromes instead of cultures.

Cultures that are bonafide cultures are the ones that are grappling with the shifting circumstances of our intrusion into their scene, and the real challenge is can they maintain their culture-hood in the face of our inability to imagine there is such a thing.

Because our way of life, on the surface of it, is so compellingly victorious, that to think it’s actually a calamity that just hasn’t quite collapsed upon itself yet, that takes enormous sight to recognize it. If your culture is endangered by our syndrome, it’s very challenging not to opt for the syndrome as the solution. It’s understandable.

So the only way you can do it is to go back to the understanding that indebtedness is the condition of being human, the willingness to live that way, not in a blasé fashion, but to really live the torment of realizing that humans have a really epic consequence by virtue of their presence on the scene, totally out of proportion with our nominal contribution to the story. And that seems to be part of being human, to find a way to live that and not try to get rid of it.”


On the meaning of life:

“Humans participate in the making of the meaning of life—not human life, life—and our willingness to be claimed by life and understand the ending of everything we hold dear as something that helps life to continue is how life continues, and that’s how the meaning shows up. You try to prevent people from dying, or you try to prevent your dog from dying, or your houseplant from dying, or the culture, or what you have instead of a culture, but if cultures die—they surely die. Cultures die. Syndromes don’t die, though.

Until you are willing to be claimed by the way it is and must be, until you stop playing your get out of jail card saying we can clever our way out of this, it doesn’t have to include us, we will never be included in life, we will always be on the outside looking in, we will always wonder about a better time, we will always try to get to heaven, we will always colonize and plunder people who have not given into any kind of syndrome at all in the name of trying to save ourselves. That’s a given.”

Grief is the willingness to be claimed by a story bigger than the one you wish for.

On the path of grief:

“Grief is the human angel in the world. Grief is not in the order of despair, depression, you know, “I give up.” Grief is the deep getting of it, and the deep being gotten by it. Grief is the willingness to be claimed by a story bigger than the one you wish for. So in that sense grief is a willingness to know. That’s what it is. Grief is the human angel in the world.

What a revolutionary proposition to realize that your heartbrokenness turns out to be the key to your willingness to remember what it takes to be a human being. That’s the beginning of how we can say, we’re in an impoverished time. That poverty marks our opportunity to have it be otherwise. Not getting out of poverty, not solving poverty, but understanding that all our instincts about poverty are themselves impoverished. But poverty’s not nothing, it’s not zero, it’s not a recipe for another iteration of self-hatred.

No, all the cultures that are really cultures, all of them are deep and skilled practitioners of grief. They are. And that grief is a willingness to see things. And that willingness is the beginning of your chance to have it otherwise, and by your grief you can be recognized as a fellow human being by people who are past masters at it, and you become trustworthy to them. Your refusal to grieve or your illiteracy where grief is concerned might be the thing that causes the most uneasiness in the people for whom, who are not afflicted that way.

The world is fed by our willingness to weep for the impossibility of being human. And the irony is, weeping for the impossibility of being human is human.”

Learn more about Stephen’s work at Orphan Wisdom.


Ian MacKenzie is a filmmaker & media activist based in Vancouver, BC. He has a background in video journalism, short films, and documentaries, with his work appearing in The New York Times, National Geographic TV, CBC Documentary, The Globe and Mail, Adbusters, and festivals around the world.  

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