Saturday, February 20, 2016

Die Wise by Stephen Jenkinson

Every once in awhile you come across a book, that completely rocks your world, turns it upside down and touches your very inner core.

To me this is one of those book. What it is about? About dying......
I have tried to put into words what this book says, what this book did to me.... but I can't. I can not find words or a description that would fully justify the impact of this book. It sent booming echoes through the valleys of my mental landscape.

Much of it makes sense, much does not. At least not yet. I will have to let this sink in, think about it.... A lot!! And probably reread it one or two times. But it is having an immediate effect on me.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book, even though the level of English used might be hard for those, whose native tongue is not English.
Get it.
Read it.
Read it again and let its wisdom seep into your mind and soul.....

I let the man speak himself:

A general description one finds in the internet on the book is or sounds like the following;

Die Wise does not offer seven steps for coping with death. It does not suggest ways to make dying easier. It pours no honey to make the medicine go down. Instead, with lyrical prose, deep wisdom, and stories from his two decades of working with dying people and their families, Stephen Jenkinson places death at the center of the page and asks us to behold it in all its painful beauty. Die Wise teaches the skills of dying, skills that have to be learned in the course of living deeply and well. Die Wise is for those who will fail to live forever.

Dying well, Jenkinson writes, is a right and responsibility of everyone. It is not a lifestyle option. It is a moral, political, and spiritual obligation each person owes their ancestors and their heirs. Die Wise dreams such a dream, and plots such an uprising. How we die, how we care for dying people, and how we carry our dead: this work makes our capacity for a village-mindedness, or breaks it.



  1. OK now that is a recommendation! Through Hewitt I subscribed to The Sun and one issue had an interview with Jenkins (who it turns out lives very close to us but not close enough for me to go darken his door - nor would I) and that was a fascinating article I can tell you. Even the article made me think. I sent the issue to my sister who struggles with depression and is a registered nurse. It made a big impression on her, too. So, ok, I'm getting the book. I'm going to get our local public library to send for it. Then they will have it after I'm done so more people can read it. Thanks for the recommendation!

    1. Is there a link to said article?

    2. you're in luck

    3. A powerful article indeed!
      I just copied it in here, in case it should disappear from the source site:

      As We Lay Dying
      Stephen Jenkinson On How We Deny Our Mortality

      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.”

    4. 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 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.

    5. Hoffner: How did you arrive at your views about dying, despite growing up in a culture that is, in your words, “death phobic”?
      Jenkinson: I recognized that something essential was missing. At every deathbed and hospital room, I didn’t see sane dying. I saw sedated dying, depressed dying, isolated dying, utterly disembodied dying. Sane dying would require a childhood steeped in death’s presence, an adulthood employed in its service, and an elderhood testifying to its necessity. Sane dying is a village-making event: lots of people with plenty to do, the whole production endorsing life. What does our way of dying endorse?
      We suffer from what I’ve come to call “grief illiteracy.” We have no language for what really happens, no ability to be a faithful witness, to do justice to how it feels to be dying in our time and place. There’s a remarkable book by historian Paul Fussell called The Great War and Modern Memory. He stumbled on the fact that there was a period of years after World War i in which there was very little literature or reportage from people who’d been at the front. Fussell concludes that the war was so without precedent that there was no language for the horrors these men had seen. And without the language, there was nothing they could say when they came home. Every city in Europe — and a good number in Canada and the U.S. — was haunted by the human wreckage of World War i shuffling along the street, suffering from shell shock. These guys literally couldn’t speak about what had happened.
      I find that idea compelling because there’s a clear parallel in the work I did: there is no language, even among the most educated, that does any kind of justice to the immensity of a terminal diagnosis. It’s a kind of poverty that beggars description. People had no words to talk about their own experience, so they were talking about everything but. That’s what I mean when I say that most dying people spend their time not dying.
      Hoffner: They try to be “normal.”
      Jenkinson: The advice they get from most doctors is to live as normal a life as they can, given the circumstances.
      Hoffner: Is that why you needed to get out of palliative care?
      Jenkinson: I didn’t think I needed to get out, really. But I wasn’t organizational material — I’m still not — and eventually it showed. I don’t know by what machinery I ended up in the inner sanctum. I was a program director at the biggest home-based palliative-care center in Canada for a time, and I got to develop a center for children’s grief from scratch, with generous funding. I had a chance to wrestle the death phobia and grief illiteracy of my corner of the world toe to toe, one grief-addled family at a time. It was absolutely a burdensome privilege. How the hell did that happen? I’m not even a physician. The truth is I was the beneficiary of benign neglect, and I can get a lot done with benign neglect. I appreciated it probably more after I left.
      Hoffner: What did you learn while you were there?
      Jenkinson: I learned that when you ask the dying what they’ve done with the garden that was entrusted to them, a lot of them can’t answer. Not only that, but their dying turns into climbing the mountain of regret one more time. And they often have a few stones to add to it. And some of those stones come from the way they are dying.

    6. Hoffner: You claim that a person can “die healthy.” How?
      Jenkinson: Health is not the absence of disease or hardship or brokenness. Health includes all of that. It includes dying.
      When people are elderly or dying, they are forced to identify themselves as no longer quite alive; their citizenship in the land of the living becomes iffy. And we, the living, conspire in that, because we ask less and less of the dying, to the point where we ask nothing of them at all: no alertness, no courtesy, no work, no testifying — nothing. This is all a way of engineering their failing health. It’s not the disease that ends their well-being; it’s our unwillingness to number them among the living. The same corruption occurs in rest homes. As soon as we say that the elderly and infirm can’t carry the weight of participating in life, that’s the beginning of the end.
      In the dominant North American culture we talk about health as a possession, something you have and are responsible for maintaining. But I see our health as like a tripod, a dynamic thing: One leg is your relationship with all other human beings. It’s not possible for you to be healthy when there are people living under a freeway overpass in cardboard boxes. Your health is dependent on theirs. The second leg is your relationship with all in the world that’s not human. If you have only these two legs, you can try to live a good life, but it’s like walking on stilts. The third leg is what gives you a place to rest, and that leg is your relationship with the unseen world, everything not described by the other two. Having all three constitutes health. That’s where it lives. This tripod sustains you. You don’t exist as an individual without these relationships.
      Hoffner: You’ve said that our culture is dying.
      Jenkinson: First off, I should reserve the word culture for a certain human achievement that is in scant supply on this continent. I wouldn’t say that the dominant culture is dying, exactly. Real culture doesn’t seem to die; rather it morphs and changes, or goes dormant or underground when necessary, sometimes for generations. The dying I’m talking about is more of a terminal swoon. The dominant culture of North America is not being killed by global warming or too few whales or anything like that. It just doesn’t know how to live, how to take up the task of loving life, even how to grieve its own grievous history. This pseudoculture is founded on the idea of self-sufficiency, self-determinism, and the sanctity of the individual. Some say the first white people came here to establish religious freedom for all, but look at the behavior of these “freedom fighters” from the moment they hit these shores. They forbade the native people they found here the same freedom of religion that they themselves sought.
      By the time the Puritans got here, disease had already spread through the continent from previous contact with the Spanish. So the colonists discovered a nearly empty land and called it a new Eden, a new Jerusalem. They came here thinking that this place was theirs for the taking. If that’s how you start out, Manifest Destiny is right around the corner: You don’t owe anything; all you have to do is reach out and grab what you want and maybe steal from your neighbor the land he can’t manage. Your only debt is to succeed. You don’t have a debt that is enduring, that can’t be paid. And that’s what’s killing the culture. Without a sense of obligation to what came before and to what is to come, you have no instinct to maintain or feed what has fed you. When you fail at that, do not be surprised if at some point you cease being fed.
      Every new wave of immigrants is indoctrinated with the idea that the continent is here for them. As someone laughingly but sadly said to me the other day: “You know why there are no meaningful programs for poor people in America? Because there are no poor people in America. There are just two kinds of people here: rich people and those who aren’t rich yet.”

    7. Hoffner: It raises the question of where the riches come from.
      Jenkinson: You’ll never hear from a billionaire that it came from other people — not publicly, at least. They’ll say, “I was smart and saw the opportunity and cashed in on it. My money didn’t come from anywhere. I made it.” Listen to that language. Made it from what? “The sweat of my brow.” Do you owe anything for the money you made? “Hell, no. I worked for it.” But where’d it come from?
      You can’t break out of this endless loop of questions until you say, “I took it from somebody. Or something.”
      Hoffner: From the commons.
      Jenkinson: From the ground. That’s where the billionaires’ money came from. From her. But if there’s no “her,” you don’t owe her anything. You can give away money for libraries and hospitals all over the world, but it’s blood money. That’s why a terminal swoon is underway: because we haven’t fed what’s fed us all along. Indigenous religion is often called “animism,” because it views the world as animate, as alive. But most of us are inanimists. We’ve been imagining the earth as a machine. Eventually the ability of the planet to feed us becomes compromised. The reciprocity broke down long ago, but the entropy in the system takes a while to show itself. From an ecological point of view, the world’s not going to just crap out. The thin membrane that makes our life sustainable is threatened, but the whole planetary enterprise is not in jeopardy. The question is whether there will be any humans left.
      Hoffner: Can a younger generation that’s properly prepared build a bridge to what comes next?
      Jenkinson: Something could change. The dilemma is that young people can’t make a culture by themselves, and neither can elders. Put them together, and maybe so. Culture makes sense only by virtue of generational, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. Without that, you create a sort of cult of purity, in which everything negative or troubling or that doesn’t seem to fit will be magically expunged. Remember psychologist Carl Jung. They say he came up with this gem: “I’d rather be whole than good.” Wholeness includes a living memory of all this madness, and not as a cautionary tale but as a story of what happens when amnesia takes over. Why do you think healthy cultures have so many rituals and ceremonies? It’s because ceremony is the way they remind themselves of the mandate of being human. It’s no easier for them to be human than it is for you or me. But they have a culture that understands how difficult it is and provides a grand choreography of memory to bring that understanding back over and over again.
      This is what funerals are supposed to do. It’s not easy to remember why we are here while you’re trying to make a living and have a life. But you’re not on the hook to remember it every waking day. That’s what the rest of us are here for. The promise of real sanity and culture is there as long as we don’t all forget at the same time. There will come a time when we’ve forgotten and you haven’t. As long as we have the diversity, we have the memory. But as soon as we start marching in lock step, it’s over. As soon as we all start believing the lie about being self-made and all the rest, it’s over, because by that mythology, those who aren’t self-made are failures.

    8. Thank you! I really was moved by the article, too.