For He So Loved the World

“A willingness to be limited, so that the world can continue whether our iteration of what we’ve come up with continues or not.”

With my three-month hiatus from community education now extended to six, and more time spent in contemplation than production, I think often of the words of caution Stephen Jenkinson offered to the 500 people crowded into the event we’d called Death:OK (Let’s Talk About It).

Those were early days in what’s since burgeoned as the “death positive” or “positive death” movement, now a media star in its own right. Conceived of in 2013 and held two years of intensive planning later, that October event was a love letter, a way of saying: We care. We’re troubled by how it is. We want better for ourselves, for those who will follow, for those who came before us. For the love of all that is in the world, seen and unseen, we have work to do.

That’s how I put it at the time.

I’ve realized since that, like many love letters, it was beating with the quickened pulse of a heady new romance, enamored of its own reflection in the pond, convinced of its own righteousness.

On that day, and in many talks before and since, Stephen reminded us that if conversation about death is like every other comfort-seeking measure in North America, we’re at risk of turning a wolf into a poodle so it will sit on our laps. He cautioned that death will not be domesticated, and that the new “death hipness” was was another manifestation of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.

“The common notion is that a deathphobic culture refuses to talk about death,” Stephen said in a recent interview. “That’s utter nonsense. A deathphobic culture engages death absolutely, and fairly routinely. But here’s how they do it. Each of these solutions [to contend with mortal dread] maintains and keeps intact the deathphobia they presume to solve. Why? Because it’s a solution that’s generated by a deathphobic culture. If you’ve got charcoal all over your hands, everything you touch will darken. A deathphobic culture generates solutions to dying which maintain the deathphobia while claiming to do something about it.

In another interview, Stephen put it this simply: “You cannot flee what you’ve learned. You have to work it. You won’t leave it behind.”

If we propose to change our culture, we need to wonder about the proliferation of products and providers, the assurance proffered by planning and preparation, the comfort of competency and control.

We might see, with dismay – and also compassion – the imprint of our times (and how we got here) in so many “death positive” solutions: no different from, and complicit with, the rest of our “growth-addicted, competence-addled, be all you can be, if you can you should, limits are there to be thwarted, limits are only in your imagination” milieu (as Stephen puts it).

“Culture,” Stephen offers, “is born fundamentally of a grieved people’s willingness to engage their grief and recognize that the limits imposed on them by their biology and their anatomy and their imagination and their homeplace – that all of these limitations are not there to be thwarted by ever-cresting levels of accomplishment.

“Culture is an inadvertent consequence of a certain number of people proceeding in a sympatico fashion, when they’re held to a standard of fundamental responsiveness, or response-ability, whereby they understand that their wellbeing is derived from the well-being of the world.”

As we further enshrine My Life. My Death. My Way. as one of the most salient features of our time, I’m grateful for these quieter days of orienting to the wellbeing of the world. Of orienting away from mastery and solutions to what Stephen calls “a willingness to be limited, so that the world can continue whether our iteration of what we’ve come up with continues or not.”