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?