This blogpost comes with a “trigger warning.” For most, the last 60 days have been witness to the complete disruption of daily life. Many people have died — nearly 250,000 worldwide, 70,000 in the United States — from a virus that the majority of us had never heard of just three, short months ago. Looking forward, humanity seems to be left with only stark and frightening choices between degrees of death and economic devastation. Given these realities, it is perfectly understandable if you would rather ignore this post announcing my interview of Stephen Jenkinson.
If you don’t know him, Stephen is teacher, storyteller, palliative care worker, and author of the award-winning book, Die Wise. I happened to read it back in 2016, right after it was released. Of his work, Stephen observes, “It’s not really a crowd pleaser.” Neither does his subject matter “submit to being clever, coy, or especially ironic — all the high water marks of casual conversation in urban centers.” As the title of his book indicates, he talks about death.
Jenkinson’s thesis? We are death phobic in the extreme, a culture that not only doesn’t believe in, but is actually hostile toward endings. We hide away our elderly, spend our final days separated from family, isolated in hospitals, talk euphemistically about transitions rather than the realities of no longer existing. This fact and this fact alone, he argues, has tremendous consequences for how we live and go about our daily lives.
I reached out a little over a week ago, asking if he would agree to an interview about how our culture’s attitude toward death might be shaping the North American response to the COVID-19 outbreak. From the concentration of deaths in “nursing homes,” breathless reports of “promising treatments” and a vaccine, the championing of healthcare professionals (while many are losing their jobs), and the media’s relentless (and scientifically uninformative) reporting of “hot spots” and “death counts,” it seemed to me we were dancing around the subject.
I’ve done a lot of interviews over the years, but none like this one. Several times, I had goosebumps. I was also concerned. Was Stephen’s direct and unflinching discussion too much? I actually asked several colleagues to watch and offer feedback before agreeing to post:
- U.S. based Psychologist Randy Moss said, “Jenkinson’s calm, yet passionate exegesis about the pandemic exposes our collective ignorance about death while inviting us to think deeply about how to go forward.”
- Long-time friend and therapist, Michele Weiner-Davis called the interview, “fascinating, poetic, and provocative.”
- Swedish colleague Patrik Ulander remarked, “it was a handful, kept me awake at 4:30 this morning. His take is so fundamental and not even really about the corona virus, but instead about us denying the only thing we’re really sure about: we’re all going to die.”
So, over to you. If you do decide to watch, PLEASE leave a comment (here and on youtube).
Until next time,
Scott D. Miller, Ph.D.
Director, International Center for Clinical Excellence
P.S.: In case you didn’t see it, here’s an interview I did two weeks ago with a CCU physician on the frontlines of the COVID-19 outbreak. As you will see, it affirms and extends much of what Stephen Jenkinson advises, while simultaneously putting a face to the challenges we face as a culture in the near future.