Stephen Jenkinson: Living With Meaning

On this site we discuss the large predicaments the world faces. Questions that often arise are: Given these challenges, how should I be? What outlook and behaviors will better help me meet what’s coming? Is there anything that can even be done at all?

This week’s podcast gets existential with us. I sit down with Stephen Jenkinson, an author and deep-thinker who a number of Peak Prosperity readers have requested come on the show. Jenkinson’s specialization is grief and dying – through his decades of work in these fields, he has developed a series of observations on what it means to live, and thereby die, with meaning.

A heads up: the path of this conversation is somewhat metaphysical. But the topics addressed are important; ones our society needs to start having some honest discussion about. Things like how to face our mistakes, errors and shortcomings openly – as with addiction, only with acknowledgment and acceptance of our condition can we then move on to self-betterment.

Jenkinson observes how, culturally, we are so averse to unpleasantness that we suppress the very conditions that are necessary for positive transformation:

The hearing in the popular culture goes something like this: Get good at grief so you can get on the other side of it, so you don't have to do it anymore. That’s what getting good at grief is, even like having a good relationship with this grief, so it won’t bite you in the ass too badly, kind of thing.

I am saying that grief is, in and of itself, a skillfulness of being a human being. It is not something you have a relationship with. It is that which in a deeply disciplined way, you practice. You’re partly being pursued by it at times, both of which has hopefully the purpose of a deep kind of introduction that you cannot turn away from again. Because it has made a claim upon you and it has the order of necessity about it, not the order of affliction. So it’s not a matter of declawing and defanging grief until it sits quietly in your lap like a poodle. Not at all, no. Grief is a human-scaled mystery. That is what it is.

In medieval times, in northern Europe in particular, in the monastic life, there are stations that you awaken through the course of the evening, deep into the night, and into the early dawn, where you are at different layers of prayer and contemplation and so on. I am told that one of the contemplative exercises for those people in that time was to say in a kind of chanting fashion, a Latin term, lacrimae rerum, which translates fairly readily for us as “the tears that are in all things”. They would not say it in order to dry the tears that are in all things, they would say it so that it could be known, that the deep facts of life require endings in order for things to proceed. This insight visits human beings as an awareness of your end before your end actually comes: the possibility of you deepening your life as a direct consequence of realizing how fundamentally limited it is in time, and in consequence, and in import.

What life is, is oftentimes tormenting, broken, a place where as my countryman who has recently died said, a crack where the light gets in. and that’s it. So, to be deeply intolerant of limits, essentially dooms you to a project of unrestrained, unfettered, and untethered growth.

If your project is to live a mutually nourishing life, then to be restrained in that regard is to be disciplined so that your capacities serve something. And in so doing, you recognize how much on the receiving end of being served you have been. Which is of course what our childhood is for. And the ending of our childhood is often accomplished by recognizing how deeply on the take we have been without ever recognizing it. And sometimes you get to live long enough where you can go…where you can turn to your parent and you can say, I’m sorry, I had no idea for the longest time. And of course your parent would probably say, yeah, I know. And there it is, at the level of family.

Well, what kind of planetary being can we turn to now and say, I’m sorry; I had no idea?

Click the play button below to listen to one of my all-time favorite interviews with Stephen Jenkinson (73m:46s).

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Over the past 3 years I've provided home care to 3 elders. Two have died.  Witnessing their losses of functionality and grieving their deaths is what some would call painful.  But knowing them and being so integral in their lives at such a time was profoundly precious.  I would never undo it to escape the tears.
I enjoyed the depth of this interview and will listen to it again.  Even before the 3 Es came along and helped radically reshape my worldview I've recognized the need for deep inner work to allow such conceptual and lifestyle shifts.  It is so satisfying to hear others working with that innermost level of reality in tandem with grappling with the physical aspects of the age of limits.  There is more of that here than one listening could catch.

For the moment, it occurs to me that once the reckoning is done, if there is anything left of humanity and of Earth, there is nothing inherently grievous about living within limits. It's different than what we've been up to, but it's not tragic.  It might be fascinating.  It might be satisfying.  Imagine not being at war with our ecosystem!

I find celebrating is a fine and true sister-practice to grieving.  By that I mean setting aside time to notice what is loved, what has been given, what is precious.  By that I don't mean clinging to what has been perfect, or easy, or what is guaranteed forever.  Both the grieving and the celebration feel like catch-up work.  The planet has been a glory for eons, and has been suffering at our hands for lifetimes.  I won't catch up with either the loss or the glory, but I'll do my part.  I value grieving and celebrating because they reveal truth.  What I love, raw.  What I long for, no cultural edits.

So far it usually turns out that what is celebrated and what is grieved are the same thing.  Those body-racking sobs are emotional evidence of our innermost love and joy, as far as I can see.  We grieve what we love.  So yes, love and joy are sometimes a bitter challenge.  Being human is not for sissies!  But I wouldn't undo that either.  Being part of this planet is the soul dream for this human.




This was a very important podcast for me, which is still resonating and sinking in.  Stephen is really an amazing voice of our times.

I've personally listened to it 2x even though I was the interviewer…and I learned more each time.

This podcast really get to the heart of something I have long struggled with and felt, which is the grief of being alive.  To hear Stephen say that grief is a skill, not a practice or a 'thing' you do once and you're done, but a skill like tennis, was really helpful to me.  

"To be conscious now is a grief-soaked proposition," he said.  The 'now' is different from past times because we have access to so much more information and because the web of life is snapping strand by strand.  To the extent we remain connected to the web of life, and we are far more than many realize, and that web is breaking down is a deeply troubling experience.

I think this explains some, or maybe a lot, of the anxiety that most people now report.  I don't think it's possible to put a few holes in the ship's hull and not have some worry come up.

To be emotionally resilient is to begin to confront the very issues that Stephen raised in this podcast.  I'll have much more to say as  this conversation develops.  For now, I'll leave you with the notion that this may be the most important podcast I've done…for me.  Personally.

Great interview.  One consequence of learning the information of the 3E's seriously is grief. One deeply feels the weight and even dread that ensues from that understanding.  Stephen's reflections, based on his experiences with/of grief, are profound and resonate deeply within my own experience of struggling with the loss of my own parents and others I have cared for deeply since my first encounter with death during the violent loss of a childhood friend. It is also great to hear someone call for a rejecting of our current understanding of grief for one that I think has a much longer existence in the history of being human. To face unconquerable disease, famine, slavery, etc has been the longer experience of civilization. To learn to live in grief rather than to pass through it has, I would think, been the norm for most of our existence as a species. Our current understanding is a recent development.
Stephen calls for a return to accepting our limitedness and our short personal existence on this planet. This (and this is where I disagree) does not necessitate rejecting monotheism but rather rejecting a view of ourselves as being the same as divine beings. From this perspective, it looks like we have as a culture replaced a monotheistic god with a view that humanity has the powers once attributed to that god. To say that monotheism came first is true. To say that currently mankind views itself as a limitless is also true. To make the first as the cause for the second is not necessarily true.

I am no scholar of western religious history.  I suspect Stephen has studied that area much more than I will ever. So he may be able to ably support his assertion. However, my suspicion is that there was a turning point in the self understanding of being human that occurred not before, but after or maybe concurrently with the growth of the use of energy.  For example, the mores of slavery changed after the use of energy and technology made slavery an unnecessary part of getting a lot of work done cheaply.  Until then slavery was pretty much a part of business as usual. People power was replaced by fossil fuel power.

To reject monotheism because it seems to have spawned mankind's view of itself as limitless on this earth is a jump that is not supported by the discussion. I grant it was only touched on but I suspect it is a pertinent subject for some PP readers. That is why I would like to pursue this a little further.

It does appear that many religious groups act today as support groups for the current paradigm for unlimited growth. Many of those groups are monotheistic. That may have been Stephen's personal historical path of experience which he has moved on from.  But, if I were looking for a causation for our current hubris the correlation with our use of energy looks to be a much more likely culprit than does the tie to monotheism.

The effect of seemingly unlimited energy from this earth is obviously a powerful agent of change in culture. It's effect on religious views needs to be studied. Religious views are changed by the culture around them. For one thing, it makes them more palatable for larger membership. But monotheistic beliefs may have suffered from unlimited energy as much as many other parts of our cultural heritage including our understanding of grief.

 My rejection of our current hell bent (to use a religious term)use of energy and its resulting devastation of our planet came first from my exposure to a monotheistic religion.  When I encountered the Crash Course I was delighted to find a convergence with my own religious experience and the facts that our current human hubris was self destructive.

 So, if I were looking for correlation being causation in our history I would point mainly at  the growth of energy use, specifically from fossil fuels. We should be careful not to reject or throw away pieces of our deep culture that have been only distorted and deformed by our present love affair with using so much energy. They may be necessary in the future.

Hi Chris,
Thank you so much for interviewing Stephen and being willing to name the importance of confronting these deeper issues inside ourselves.

I want to offer a couple of additional threads for interested folks to follow.  First the School of Lost Borders in California offers a program called the Practice of Living and Dying.  One of the teachers in this program is Scott Eberle, An MD here in Northern California who runs a wonderful hospice program.

Second, I really appreciate what herewego said about the connection between celebration and grief.  In this vein I recommened a book by one of my beloved teachers, Martin Prechtel, call The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise.


Good discussion with ample stuff to chew on. However, some things just never die. Stephen touched on what I see as the biggest liability and potential for malice. What’s your motivation?:

So, to be deeply intolerant of limits, essentially dooms you to a project of unrestrained, unfettered, and untethered growth.
If your project is to live a mutually nourishing life, then to be restrained in that regard is to be disciplined so that your capacities serve something.
I’m no Bible scholar, either, but some  truths still resonate from my earliest exposure to religious thought:
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward,[a] they found a plain in Shinar[b] and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.

Perhaps humility is what we should be embracing

I am one of those people that intuitively knows that grief and sadness is where some of the most beautiful things in life are so I tend to not resist it like most people. Thank you for introducing me to his work. I am going to get more of his materials.  I feel like he took my view of the world and tilted it.  Once again you are blowing me away with the breadth and depth of the material you present.    

Great podcast, I could deeply relate to Mr. Jenkinson's ideas.  Often I feel like I am living in grief and, at times wonder, temporarily, if life wouldn't be easier if I were one of the clueless.  I especially liked " lacrimae rerum" (the tears that are in all things) Throwing away an empty bottle of Crown Royal causes me pain as I see the energy that went into its production.  The bottle is beautiful and it's very useful.  It's so sad that we pollute our land with beautiful and useful items. (glass isn't accepted in our recycled bin) Books are items I grieve over as well.  They represent a richness of life that my words are insufficient to describe.  People are getting rid of books in mass because they can now read a book on a digital device.  Someday owning a tangible book will again be a privilege and a pleasure, I believe.  My husband and I are taking advantage of this new trend and picking up books for pennies.  Not sure who will read all of them but knowing what I know they are a valuable resource.  I liked the phrase Mr.Jenkinson used that the meaning of our life is in the hands of those that come after us.  If the berry bushes I plant feed someone in the future great, if only the birds, that's okay too.  The activity of planting them was worthwhile and money to buy them well spent.  Oh if only those who come after us were the basis for our decision making.
One comment about the podcast would be - I would have liked to hear a discussion about is fear.  In taking classes on Aging and seeing what's going on in the world fear can be a very real companion of grief. Aging can be scary as can be death.  Fear of the unknown can also be very real.  Those of us who have an understanding of the changes we face may very well be better suited to meet the future, hope free.  The story of Pandora's Box was that hope was the worst of the horrors unleashed when the box was opened. How many will and are clinging to the idea (hope) that civilization still travels the path up the growth  hill rather than  down the other side of the hill.  

Will listen to this podcast again!  Would like for you will have Mr. Jenkinson back for another interesting discussion.

PS - I took a Death and Dying class and the very first class the instructor said "statistically speaking, 100% of people die" which puts the subject into perspective.  Everyone is affected by death, loss, change and grief so this is an important subject!  Kudos Chris for delving into this subject which affects us all.


I've learned a lot of things from the Peak Prosperity community.  This podcast resonates with me "hands-down" as the most fundamentally powerful, deep, and true podcast of all.  I'm ready for these truths.  Lately, I've been reading about the irredeemable nature of our civilization in books by  Derrick Jensen (recommended by a PP commentor) and re-reading Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.  And I've been thinking of my aunt who is fully in denial (hope!) about her stage 4 lung cancer that has metastacized into her bones…   What I mistook for malaise, sadness, or 'depression' is likely a legitimate grief.  It won't pass, because these circumstances won't pass. 

I've accepted an invitation to sit on a panel next month called "United With Our Environment: where we are now, the new administration, and the future." The organizers have stated that "the goal of this panel discussion is to provide the * Valley a feeling of positivity and empowerment in light of the recent change to our administration next month."  Sounds a bit like "self-help", doesn't it?  The organizers may not know it yet, but I plan to bring a dose of realism and acknowledgement of our circumstances along with a clear roadmap of what I'm called to do (i.e., quit my job as a mining hydrologist and produce local food).  I doubt I'll be sharing much "hope and positivity", but I'll certainly be sharing realism, acceptance, vision, and determination.  And I plan to listen to this podcast at least three more times before the panel discussion.   

Chris and Stephen - thanks for this podcast.  It is absolutely amazing. 

I could give you more thumbs up. Folk are in a "Pascallian quandry". "Do I deny and suffer the consequence, or accept, live accordingly, and enjoy the descent"?

One deep theme that ran through the discussion was the need to live in the present. One of the struggles we face is grief. Another is fear. Another is worry. All of these require the discipline of living in the present. I would love to have a revisit with Stephen and Chris to unpack some details on these and similar areas that I suspect afflict many of us as the Peak Prosperity site is first encountered.

[hope free] simply means that you do not require hope to proceed. That is all it means. And in the face of what’s coming, what may have already begun to come, in the face of that, awakened people need to be able to proceed without hope.
I see being hope-free as misplaced hope. That is, you are now trusting (placing your hope in) an attitude thinking it well help to accomplish some goal.

Many years ago as a teen, I heard a speaker (on cassette tape!) talking about a time in university where he had read a philosophy book and was trying to understand the author's point of view. As I remember, the speaker went to his professor to ask him to explain the book. The explanation of the book was essentially "The Titantic is going down. We know it is going  down. We can't stop it. So we might as  well arrange the deck chairs in a nice way so that it looks good while we are going down."

That sounds like hope-free to me. It also sounds like madness.

My (monotheistic) world view tells me to "rejoice in hope of the the glory of [G]od. And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also…" Why do I rejoice in hope and glory in afflictions? Well, that delves into topics that fall outside the guidelines for this community.

If we want to explore spirituality, we have to grapple with the possibility of contamination of the human spirit and its cause and its remedy.

Like aggrivated said above, I can agree that

It does appear that many religious groups act today as support groups for the current paradigm for unlimited growth.
But I also would not throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

Personally, I'm sticking with hope (of the glory of [G]od).

Great interview.
Isn't it interesting that the more we let go of hope the more positively we can live; the more we live in the present the better able we are to cope with the future; the more we're able to let go of the need to control the more we can accept what is?

It's totally confounding to the mind! Which is, I guess, why it's so useful to go beyond the 'thinking' mind from time to time.

The Tyranny of Hope was a really powerful segment of this interview for me.  I guess I'd never thought of it that way before, but those clinging to hope are really denying themselves a chance to be present.

To be hopeful, or hopeless, means that one is living in some other place and time than the present.

Too be hope free means one has decided to live in the here and now, with things as they are (rather than as one would hope for them to be).

Most people here have probably known someone, perhaps quite personally, that when faced with a certain fatal prognosis, chose to spend their remaining time "fighting a courageous battle" against whatever disease has claimed them.  

And that battle is really rooted in a profound desire to not face mortality straight on, and so often, painfully often, quality of life is traded for a few more days, or weeks or maybe months.  

It's such a phenomenon, it provides the humorous context for this Onion article:

Loved Ones Recall Local Man's Cowardly Battle With Cancer

On Jan. 26, just four days after visiting the doctor for what he thought was severe indigestion or maybe an ulcer, Russ Kunkel got the dreaded news: A malignant, fist-sized tumor had metastasized between his stomach and liver. It was cancer.

Russ Kunkel with wife Judith and son Jake. Right then and there, faced with the prospect of a life-threatening disease, the 34-year-old Florissant, MO, husband and father of three drew a deep breath and made a firm resolution to himself: I am not going to fight this. I am a dead man.

On Feb. 20, less than a month after he was first diagnosed, Kunkel died following a brief, cowardly battle with stomach cancer. "Most people, when they find out they've got something terrible like this, dig deep down inside and tap into some tremendous well of courage and strength they never knew they had," said Judith Kunkel, Russ' wife of 11 years. "Not Russ. The moment he found out he had cancer, he curled up into a fetal ball and sobbed uncontrollably for three straight weeks."

Said Judith: "I can still remember Russ' last words: 'Oh, God—I'm going to die! Why, God, why? Why me? Why not someone else?'"

According to Russ' personal physician, Dr. James Wohlpert, the type of cancer Russ had generally takes at least four months to advance to the terminal stage. But because of what he described as a "remarkable lack of fighting spirit," the disease consumed him in less than one. "It's rare that you see someone give up that quickly and completely," Wohlpert said.

"Cancer is a powerful disease, but most people can at the very least delay the spread of it by maintaining a positive outlook and mental attitude. This, however, was not the case with Russ." Russ' friends and acquaintances saw that same lack of fighting spirit.

"Russ did not go quietly, that's for sure," said longtime friend Bobby Dwyer. "He did a tremendous amount of screaming."

I think the onion could write a similar article about people's inability to face the many predicaments in which we've placed ourselves.  

Perhaps it's not too much of a stretch to suppose that our deep seated fear of mortality extends to and informs our collective inability to really face the other limits of life.  

But the great paradox of living is that in order to really become one things, you must embrace the other. 

A few that I wrestle with and am constantly deepening:

  • To love deeply one must be willing to grieve deeply.  The depth of one defines the depth of the other.
  • To step fully into one's masculine self, one must encounter and integrate one's feminine self.
  • To step fully into one's feminine self, one must encounter and integrate one's masculine self.
  • To fully live, one must embrace one's own death (not conceptual death, but personal death).
  • Ultimate freedom comes with ultimate responsibility.
Each of these has an entire mountain of discovery and learning beneath them and I'm just getting started.  The more I learn, the less I know.  If I keep this up much longer, I won't know anything at all.  

Oh well, I am having a blast, so I guess it's all good.  :)

In the meantime, to be hope free is something I aspire towards.  I think it helps to explain the concept of "dying into life"  and provides a means of assessing when I am in the grips of hope.  It is the difference between secretly hoping something will happen, and deciding what will happen.  

I'm wanting to add "Grieving" to my skill set in my personal profile.I have asked for the category to be added. I got some serious training in grief when I was told that I had only months to live due to raging metastatic cancer. I had a "I can't go on, I'll go on" moment. I clearly saw the end of my life before it was to come. I remember walking outside to install a rainwater filtration system that was, just days before, going to be for "us" and now was going to be only for my wife. I made myself finish the job for her and for the sake of the job.  Now, 12 years later, I play celebratory music at lots of funerals and I am gaining more skills in empathy and grief. (And the rainwater system still works well.)  For some reason, only known to God, I am still alive.


Many years ago, I was a milkman in Winnipeg, Manitoba and many of my customers were Jewish and had, somehow, survived the Nazi pogroms of the 1930's and 1940's. Many of these individuals I got to know on more than a casual basis and when they remembered their experiences(which wasn't often) there was a tenacity of spirit and grit that was palpable. It eventually gave way to a profound sense humor reflective of their current life. As one individual told me, "You can resign yourself to the inevitable or try and "stick-handle" your way around the opposing players and body check if you have to; and not worry about the penalties". We all have one shot at this life and it isn't over until the final whistle. Regular visitors to the PP site are painfully aware of the obstacles facing mankind. But our response to them should be measured; call me old fashioned.
"Ultimate freedom comes with ultimate responsibility". 

Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right, Because their words had forked no lightning they Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

While watching a PBS presentation on St Francis of Assisi last night, the correspondence between his life and these PP discussions was clear.  He found radical freedom and joy in poverty (i.e., dying to that to which one is attached).  While not a Catholic, I found it to be very engaging; a valuable resource.

This discussion reminded me of a quote from a 20th century Russian Christian monastic. “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.” There are many others who have experienced the ongoing tragedy that is part of survival and the joy and purpose that is needed to go on.Some have carried within them a hope in the immaterial. Without knowing that others have been there and done that, all the data in the world wouldn’t convince me to abandon ‘the good life’ that endless energy promises.

This was a wonderful and sad interview for me, too.
'Tis one thing to understand the lifecycle/ population peak and descent curve of yeast in an overcrowded vat of sugar water.  But to live through it and see ones children live through this is heart wrenching.  The grief that we may see is staggering.  But there does seem to be some peacefulness from letting in that I will die anyway.

Oliveoilguy's story was much appreciated.

I am somewhat at a loss as to how to respond to this podcast so please forgive me as I plow ahead.
As a firefighter/EMT and as an emergency room nurse for almost 20 years years I have witnessed the tyranny of hope many, many times.  

As a "Doomer" I have run the math backward and forward and have been unable to convince myself that we as a species are facing anything less then a catastrophe of literally unimaginable proportion.

As a person who had a heart attack 5 days ago and is grappling with the idea that I am alive today by the barest of chances.

I do not have to "Be all that I can be", I just have to stand in the place were I am, love the people I am with, enjoy what time I may have left.

This was a fascinating pod cast to open up in the midst of a deep and personal existential crisis.

Thank you,

John G.