Beyond the Fear of Death

Stephen Jenkinson is an author that’s been on my to-read list for a while. Until last week, I didn’t know anything about him other than he wrote extensively on the subject of the death phobia of modern western culture. As my reading list is long and getting longer and as the subject came up last week, I decided to check out this interview with Jenkinson where he speaks at length on the problem of death in the west. I had touched on this problem myself back at the start of the coronapocalypse series of posts and so it was fascinating to hear those themes talked about in more detail from somebody with real world experience (Jenkinson’s take on the subject comes from years of work as a grief counsellor). But Jenkinson also touched many of the other themes I explored in my two books on corona. After watching the video I decided to check out his website. Its title? Orphan Wisdom. But The Orphan is one element of the Devouring Mother – Orphan archetype that I stumbled across earlier this year. Synchronicity much? Clearly I’m going to have to spend a lot more time exploring Jenksinson’s ideas. From quick reading of his site, it seems that his approach is that we need to accept our orphanhood and find a way to build something on it. This seems like a promising idea. In a Jungian sense, we are currently manifesting the shadow side of The Orphan. We need to find the positive side. That idea warrants some future posts. For now, I just wanted to post my main notes from watching the Jenkinson video.

The denial of death as heroism

Jenkinson tells a story from his experience about a woman dying of a terminal illness who had only months to live but said she “didn’t let it be a big part of her life”. This was a pattern he had seen time and again when somebody was facing imminent death. Our culture views this attitude as a kind of heroism. That is, it is seen to be heroic to deny death; to not let it get you down even when you are staring it in the face. That same faux-heroism drives our desire to eliminate death (through medicine, vaccines, lockdowns) and, when all else is lost, to allow ourselves the easy way out that is euthanasia. We must die on our own terms even if that means simply ignoring our death as it approaches. To do otherwise is to “fail” and failure is not heroic.

I mentioned in one of my coronapocalypse posts the weird use of the heroism concept as a propaganda tool during corona. I can now see from Jenkinson’s story why this resonates with the public. It is heroic to do whatever you can to avoid death. But this follows from our phobia of death and our fear of not being in control. For those of us who do not share these phobias, the behaviour looks psychotic and dissociative. Of course, needless death should be avoided where we have the means to do so. But the ultimate judge of those means are whether they work and it is clear by now that lockdowns, masks and corona vaccines do not work. However, the true believers are not looking for something that works. They are acting a part required by our culture; the part of “heroism”. It is for this reason that leaders during corona have needed to be seen to do everything to “fight death” even when it means trashing all the other institutions of society. Of course, those institutions are all subject to the same cultural expectation and acquiesced in the same way. That’s why every single institution now has a “covid safe” plan. All this is demanded by the general culture and it’s for this reason that the corona measures still enjoy general public support. The couching of the whole issue in terms of “heroism” e.g. clapping for the NHS at a certain time of the day, is part of the hero-culture that is really just a denial of death.

Elders, parents and culture

It’s not just that we don’t respect our elders anymore, it’s that we don’t have any elders. It’s not hard to see why. Elders acquire their position through the vague and ambiguous machinations of culture. There is a process to go through to become an elder. I touched on this when explaining the rise of Jordan Peterson, who became an elder in an organic fashion. Our modern faith in “experts” is in some sense the opposite of elderhood. Wisdom is not required for expertise, only knowledge. Elders must be wise but there is no way to attain wisdom through education.

Although not synonymous, grandparents were once well placed to become elders, at least to their grandchildren. However, in the post-WW2 period, we have progressively loaded parents with the whole responsibility of raising children (although, I would argue that parents also desired that responsibility). The relationship of the child with its grandparents is now mediated through the parents and the grandparents have very little say on the raising of the children. In fact, it is a very common source of family argument when grandparents try to intervene and are put in their place by the parents. Having removed grandparents from the “elder” role, there was nobody else to fill the gap. The breakdown of this familial arrangement went side by side with the breakdown of the traditional neighbourhood structure where elders from outside the family might have arisen. The result: we are without elders.

What role have elders played traditionally in society? According to Jenkinson it’s “to ensure cultural sanity”. Given the current state of our culture, this diagnosis seems spot on. We got rid of elders and cultural insanity followed. This ties back to Jung’s point about the destruction of tradition. Elders are there to pass on tradition but we explicitly scorn tradition nowadays. Having foregrounded the parent role at the expense of the grandparent/elder role, it’s no surprise that The Devouring Mother archetype has ascended. She is a parent archetype who represents, among other things, the complete control parents now have over the development of their children independent of elders and any wider cultural network. In practice, this means we have loaded up the parent role with all kinds of expectations and obligations that the average parent cannot fulfil and it’s quite likely that the increasing divorce rates in western countries are at least partly a result of this. In any case, the child’s development is now entirely at the parents’ instigation and management. Will to power. The Devouring Mother’s desire to control everything.

In the meantime, what do we do with grandparents? Having removed their traditional role in family life, they have no economic or social place left when they hit retirement. We send them away to nursing homes. Out of sight, out of mind. The desire to “save them” during corona is part guilt at our complicity in this state of affairs and part control trip.

The Tyranny of Hope

Around this time last year I remember seeing the then Health Minister in Britain, Matt Hancock, give a speech to parliament announcing the government was looking forward to “injecting hope” into the arms of Britons. He was referring, of course, to the vaccine. I involuntarily interpreted his metaphor as one of drug addiction. Who is this drug pusher wanting to inject people? And who are the people who wanted to be injected with hope? Are we addicted to hopium in modern society?

Jenkinson calls hope “tyrannical”. Hope is dissociative. It requires you to ignore the present circumstances which are, by definition, bad, and look forward to an improvement later. Sometimes hope is warranted. If you are trapped in the mountains with a broken leg and have reason to believe a search party is looking for you, you can hope that they find you. But hope in general is debilitating and often comes out of a failure to face facts. We see this deception everywhere in modern society. “They’ll think of something,” we say about how to get out of our energy and pollution predicaments. “Just listen to the experts” is just another way of having hope that the experts will make everything right.

What has led to this state of affairs is not just political and economic trends but our death phobia. If we can deceive ourselves into ignoring even our own imminent death, we can deceive ourselves about anything. The addiction to hope means also the constant dissociation from reality and we have no shortage of that in the modern world through endless entertainment, 24/7 news broadcasts, Netflix, computer games, alcohol, drugs, porn. The list goes on. What if all of this is not the cause but the effect? What if the real cause is cultural: our fear of death. If we can’t face the most fundamental fact of life, how can we face the less fundamental ones?

Grieving as the flipside of Loving

It is often said of modern society that it has no heart. Nevertheless, a great deal of our public discourse is supposedly about caring about the feelings of others. Jenkinson notes that this falls out from our control junkie culture. Death couldn’t give a damn about our feelings. Thus, its presence is an insult to our ethic of control. It also challenges our feelings. We don’t want to hurt the feelings of others because we don’t want our feelings hurt. What is implied is that we do not know how to control our feelings and any unleashing of those feelings threatens our psychic equilibrium. This also implies a psyche that is out of balance and weak. The emotions are a great servant but a terrible master. One should not bottle up the emotions but one also should never let the emotions dictate one’s state of being. But that is where we are as a culture. Everything must be “personal” and few things are more personal than your feelings. This also explains our need to dissociate from death because the torrent of feelings that might be unleashed threatens to overwhelm not just ourselves but our family and friends. We grit through it to protect them too. If nobody can process emotions properly, it’s safer to dissociate altogether and “not let it dominate you”.

Grief is not a feeling. Grief should not be mistaken for despair or depression and, unlike feelings, grief is not transitory in nature. Grief is an exercise. One becomes a practitioner of grief or, in our society, one does not become a practitioner of grief because we have forgotten how to grieve. There is a flipside to this problem according to Jenkinson: “If you’re in love, grief will be part of the deal”. Grief and love are two sides of the same coin. “Grief is a way of loving that which has slipped from view” and “love is a way of grieving that which has not yet slipped from view.” It follows that if one cannot grieve, one cannot love in the fullest sense of the word where that love includes the recognition that the thing that is loved is temporary. And that brings us back to death because death is the ultimate recognition of the temporal nature of things. Death, love and grief are all related. A death-phobic culture cannot grieve but it also cannot love in the truest sense and this is why modern society has no heart.

In one of Neil Oliver’s best editorials on corona he noted that he realised that he was grieving for a way of life that has now gone. That implies that he loved that way of life and so did some of the rest of us. But it’s equally true that many did not. The ease with which we tossed into the bin all of those principles we thought were fundamental to our society implies a lack of love towards that society. That it was done in the name of desperately avoiding death is not a coincidence. We avoid death so that we don’t have to grieve so that we don’t have to acknowledge that we don’t love. There is a giant void at the centre of it all.

This brings me to a point I have been pondering recently and which is touched upon in Jenkinson’s idea of Orphan Wisdom. If many people have no love for the current state of the world, perhaps corona can usher in a new era where there is something to love. I admit this seems extraordinarily unlikely. The Great Reset and the totalitarian direction that we are now lurching towards is the opposite of anything that could be loved. But if corona can have any positive effect it would be this: that a society or a way of life could emerge that is worth loving. This need not involve throwing away everything and starting again. It may be that we must rediscover what was worth loving about our society in the first place. Such a love would only be one part of the story, however. It would have to come alongside learning how to grieve and it seems to me that this is where Jenkinson’s ideas could have found their time. We need to become practitioners of grieving and in doing so we would have to face our death phobia. All that would need to be achieved in the face of powerful forces who are using our fear of death for their own purposes (hello, Devouring Mother). If that fear of death was confronted, it would lose its power. What sort of leader, people or movements that could make that happen is something to watch out for. Aren’t we due for the second coming of a guy who taught about love?

29 thoughts on “Beyond the Fear of Death”

  1. I see your point about there being no elders, but I don’t think that’s the primary reason old people wind up in nursing homes. I think that nursing homes are a consequence of our greatly prolonged pre-death part of life. Have you read _Being Mortal_ by Atul Gawande? One thing he mentions in the book is that, until fairly recently, people lived their lives healthy, and the first time they got seriously ill, they died. This is a little bit of an oversimplification (you might get an infectious disease, be at the death’s door, and then recover), but the main point, as I understand it, is that you simply wouldn’t spend an extended period of time in obviously ill health, but nevertheless alive. Thus, if grandma got to the point where she needed someone else to spoon feed her and wipe her behind, she’d only spend a few days or at most weeks in that state. If you loved grandma, you might willingly put your life on a pause for those few days/weeks, and then it would be over. Nowadays, though, thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, grandma’s reasonably likely to spend years or even (gods help us!) decades in that state. So, nursing home it is. The situation is unsustainable (and utterly miserable, especially for grandma), but for now, that’s what it is.

  2. Simon – This post gave me a lot to think about. At the beginning of the pandemic in Israel I was asked by a work acquaintance to help watch his mother in the hospital as I was the only person he knew who was not afraid of going into a hospital because of the virus. He and his brother were taking shifts but because of their work they needed someone to help.

    Their mother was hospitalized not because of an illness, but because she was locked alone in her apartment since her children thought it’s best not to visit her because of the pandemic, and that caused her health to deteriorate.

    As it turned out, I was there when she died, turns out I was the last person to see her alive. I remember she looked in horror at some point behind me, you are welcome to make any supernatural interpretation you wish, I seriously think we were not alone in the room.

    This left me with a lot of feelings of guilt even though I did not do anything wrong and nobody blamed me. It was hard not only because I had a hard time processing the emotions, but also because I was not grieving since I did not know the woman and barely knew her son. I was in the army and had a mortar shell almost hit me, and yet this is the closest I ever was to death.

    So your points about the elderly being left to die alone and our inability to deal with death drove home for me.

  3. Irena – yes. That’s definitely a part of it. A work colleague told me a story once of his 90 year old grandmother who was about to die. There was some (very expensive) surgery the doctors said could save her but it was high risk with about a 50/50 chance of working. The woman herself did not want the surgery but the decision was with the family who decided to go ahead. The surgery worked and she stayed alive another 5 years during which time she was miserable and needed constant care. All because we don’t know how to face death. Thanks for the reference to Gawande. Another book for my to-read list!

    Bakbook – that’s the third time I have heard almost that exact story told i.e. elderly person who was healthy got sick when people stopped visiting because of corona and died even though it wasn’t from corona. I wonder how many others caught corona in hospital and tested positive thereby adding to the statistics. I recommend watching some of Jenkinson’s videos and I’ve heard his book “Die Well” is also worth a read. For what it’s worth, he says he thinks of Death as a deity and so I think he would said that it was Death itself that was in the room with you and the woman.

  4. Gday mate
    Thanks for introducing me to Jenkinson. Never heard of him before.
    As for elders and experts. The latter can be produced by the machine we call education system and can be fully understood in material terms. The former cannot, as you pointed out. No surprise that a society that exclusively thinks in machine metaphors woul be uncomfortable with them.

    Can the current mess lead to a better world? Maybe. Who would have predicted in 1933 that Hitlers rise to power would lead to 70 years of peace (well mostly), stability and prosperity for one of the most violent and volatile parts of the world. However roughly 100 Million people died until that happened.
    I guess there is always room for hope. Interestingly, one of the interpretations of the myth of Pandora is, that hope was the most horrible thing to escape the box.

  5. Roland – I have no hope that it will happen but I can see a pathway towards it. I also have no hope that the great resetters will fail, I just think they almost certainly will fail cos the ideas they are using don’t happen to correspond to the real world. I guess we’ll end up somewhere in between.

  6. just when you think we have reached peak madness…
    one can forgive greta. A teenager with mental issues, but lambie is a different kettle of fish.
    However it probably did wonders for her popularity.

  7. Apparently it’s being an “adult” to do whatever the government tells you. That’s certainly not my version of what an adult is. In fact, that’s pretty much the definition of a young child (if government was the parent).

  8. One notable aspect of both sides of the covid debate is that neither one wants to confront death, they are both trying to re-establish the veil hiding the reality of it.

    Governments and the vast majority of citizens desperately trying to banish the awareness of death by ‘curing’ the presently visible aspect with the so-called vaccine. And no alternative therapy is acceptable, because that would require a degree of acknowledgement and understanding, not an absolute banishment. The issue is the vaccines don’t work and may even be exacerbating the problem, so that route is a bit of dead end. But they’ll keep trying more and more extreme measures to avoid any confrontation with reality.

    And the other side just wants a return to normal, a reburying of heads in the sand because the facts clearly prove nothing much actually changed around death, so why not go back to ignoring it? It should be easy, right? But actually, it isn’t, because things have changed in that the genie – awareness of death – is out of the bottle and genies are notoriously difficult to put back inside. It is possible that reburying that awareness is an insurmountable problem.

    So, that leaves the only resolution as an actual, genuine, unavoidable acknowledgement of death. That happened after World War I, and the slogan for that acknowledgement was ‘Never Again’. This time, who knows how it will manifest. But the insanity will continue until a casus belli arises such that the entire topic is forced into awareness. It could be virus mutations, vaccine issues, war, genocide, honestly who knows. But the only certain thing is that the event will need to be on a sufficient scale that a genuine acknowledgement is unavoidable.

  9. Daniel – you may be right. It should have been easy to put the genie back in the bottle. There have been so many off-ramps to the madness and yet it continues to escalate. If nothing comes along as a circuit breaker, it’s quite possible we’ll still be going back into the annual winter lockdown in five or ten years while they roll out booster number eight or whatever. Nothing would surprise me anymore.

  10. Maybe the narrative is not the Plague Story but the War Story. Some guy on the German indubio podcast suggested that a while ago. Would certainly be consistent with the rhetoric. And it would explain why we missed all the exits. They simply were not appropriate.
    He seems to think this story takes about 5 or 6 years to play itself out.

  11. Roland – one alternative history of the spanish flu that I’ve heard is that the flu didn’t go away, people just eventually gave up caring about it. I guess that would be one difference between a genuine plague story (eg. bubonic) and a respiratory viral “plague”. The former comes and goes very quickly and the latter never really goes.

  12. @Roland

    Yes, I think this is the War Story, and those of us who do not wish to be injected with experimental gene therapies are seen as draft dodgers, whereas those who accepted it did their part for the cause. Hence, the propaganda and the demonization. The thing that’s not clear, though, is who the enemy is. It used to be the virus. Now, it seems to be the internal enemies, i.e. us. So, they’re at war with us. I keep quoting Marx, about history repeating itself, first as a tragedy, and then as a farce. So, are we in the midst of Stalinist purges, farce edition?

    Anyway, it may indeed be that this will last for five or six years. That would be consistent with the War Story.

  13. If this is a war story, can we please just get Dubya Bush to declare “Mission Accomplished”.

  14. The queensland chook is always good for a laugh.
    Interesting though that there is actually a journo challenging her. A breath of fresh air.

  15. @irena don’t think we need an enemy any more. This is not an actual war. Just as it is not a real plague. It never was anything but a story.
    Makes me wonder how many catastrophies in history happened just because a story was triggered and then played itself out according to the script, totally ignoring reality.

  16. Something just clicked. While corona may be a minor enough threat to most people, it is, in fact, a major threat to our institutions, primarily the health care system. Why? Because the system has so little surge capacity. One somewhat worse-than-usual flu-like illness, and the system collapses. For it not to collapse, you’d need to either (1) increase capacity or (2) ration. (1) is hard because the system is already crazy expensive, and moreover, training people to work in the ICU is not easy (and what are you going to do with all those specialists once the crisis is over?). (2) is perceived as morally repugnant. Result? Panic, accompanied by actions that reduce the overall health of the population, thus putting even more strain on the health care system in the not-so-long term (actually, this has already started).

    In the end, “unsustainable” means that it cannot (and therefore will not) be sustained. Keeping ever more very sick people alive ever longer takes up an enormous amount of resources and manpower. Little wonder that the system is overstretched. Sooner or later, we’ll discover a way to scale back, but it won’t be pretty, and I wouldn’t count on the process being rational, either.

  17. And they just declared a state of emergency in CZ (again). We’ll see what exactly that means in practice.

  18. Irena – yeah, the number of hospital beds per capita has been going down steadily for decades. We’ve become experts at hiding away inflation and now the inflation has caught up with us.

  19. Yeah i saw some of one nations videos. This really is a good one.
    Funny old world where Pauline is making sense.
    The hope video is interesting too. Did you hear the journalist saying that the dangerous thing about the virus is that it gives you no symptoms?
    How nasty of it not to make you sick. Of course we have to eradicate it at all costs.

  20. Yeah. There was a funny newspaper article circulating from Britain this week about a new “symptomless strain”. As the saying goes: send the asteroid.

  21. Roland: “Makes me wonder how many catastrophies in history happened just because a story was triggered and then played itself out according to the script, totally ignoring reality.”

    Yup. And I think the WWI analogy remains the best one. You have an unpleasant, but ultimately not that serious of a situation, and then you overreact and produce a major catastrophe.

  22. And the Czech tragicomedy continues. Parliamentary elections were held about a month and a half ago, and the current Prime Minister (or rather, his party) lost the election. The Czech President was taken to a hospital shortly thereafter, though it’s not entirely clear what the problem was. (He trigger seems to have been his distress at the election results. The underlying problem is that he’s old and very sick, and rumor has it that the main problem was his liver. This wouldn’t be particularly surprising, given his age – he’s 77 – and fondness for alcohol.) This meant that a new government couldn’t be formed because this required some (mostly ceremonial) involvement of the President. So anyway, he was released earlier this week, he was supposed to name the new Prime Minister (the head of the coalition that won the election), but alas, he tested positive for da virus shortly thereafter (he’s asymptomatic), and so the whole thing is postponed until Sunday. Except that the Czech Head Hygienist (essentially, the chief public health person) says that this is out of the question because he’s supposed to stay in quarantine. The soon-to-be Prime Minister says there can be no delays, and that the President will meet with him on Sunday. Yadda yadda yadda.

    Meanwhile, the old government is passing ridiculous measures such as banning Christmas markets (y’know, the outdoor stuff, when we’ve known for well over a year that outdoor transmission is minimal). Of course, I have no way of knowing whether the new government will be any better than the old one.

    Anyway, if I weren’t living through this, I’d be entertained. I imagine that 23rd century historians will have a blast writing about the corona period.

  23. @Simon

    Re: hospital beds

    I believe it used to be standard for patients to stay in hospital after whatever treatment they were getting until they were more or less ready to go back to normal life. Now, patients are released much more quickly, and they’re expected to convalesce at home. This isn’t completely bad (less chance to pick up some bug at the hospital), but it’s also harder for patients and the people taking care of them at home in many ways. And, of course, it means that you have much less surge capacity. You can’t release patients a bit earlier than before in order to free up beds, because any earlier would be legitimately dangerous.

    On the other hand, high tech everything has exploded. You can provide highly specialized treatments for ever sicker patients, and this is now seen as a right by most people. But of course, this is a lot more expensive than the treatments of old (with some notable exceptions, e.g. laparoscopic surgery). So, the health care system costs more and more, there are fewer and fewer hospital beds, we see access to the super-fancy medical treatments as a right, and in return, we surrender our freedom to our medical overlords.

  24. Irena – that same story with the Czech government would be playing out all the time at every level of society. Here is Australia, we’ve got a 90+% vax rate and they will still make you queue for 3 hours to get a test then isolate at home for days waiting for the result if you were in the same place as a confirmed case. I’m surprised more vaxxed people aren’t seriously angry about that. As for the hospital beds, I’m reminded of Florence Nightingale who was a firm believer in the terrain theory of disease and believed almost all diseases could be treated by cleanliness, fresh air and a good nurse. I’d be fascinated to see that idea put to the test. Set up an old-fashioned hospital run according to Nightingale’s principles and compare the results against a modern hospital.

  25. Roland: “Makes me wonder how many catastrophies in history happened just because a story was triggered and then played itself out according to the script, totally ignoring reality.”

    A similar thought makes me wonder how much of known history itself is just the narrative too, and what happened on the ground was only vaguely related.

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