Upon finding himself in the presence of dying people – this as head of a counseling team in a palliative care program – Stephen Jenkinson, Canadian teacher/farmer/storyteller/canoe-builder, witnessed the dilemma of our contemporary attitude on dying. In trying to avoid death at all costs, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to make meaning of our lives at the end of life. We are effectively denied the experience of meeting death on our own terms – ones that might herald the culmination of whatever wisdom we’ve accrued in our days, rather than signifying a giving up, a failure.
With Master’s degrees from both Harvard University (in Theology) and the University of Toronto (in Social Work), Jenkinson has accumulated some insider information about how to approach such problematic attitudes. He works to help others find a direct line to “dying wise.” He emphasizes the distinction between this and “dying wisely,” which, in short, refocuses the wisdom and places it squarely on the individual.
In a clip shot and directed by Ian Mackenzie, Jenkinson says, “The meanings of life aren’t inherited. What is inherited is the mandate to make meanings of life by how we live. The endings of life give life’s meanings a chance to show. The beginning of the end of our order, our way, is now in view. This isn’t punishment, any more than dying is a punishment for being born.”
This is not a conversation about how to die, what arrangements to put in place, what choices to make. It is a straightforward acknowledgment that we do indeed die. It is an admonition to wise up about who we are and how we have lived before death shortchanges our opportunity to make meaning of our lives. “What if meaning is not hidden?” he asks. Indeed, what if our purpose is to recapitulate what we’ve learned, how we have evolved during our short years on Earth? What, as some might ask, is the point? The answer might lie in knowing that we choose. And in choosing to face death straight-on, we are empowered to say what the meaning of our life is.
Circle of Friends for the Dying, a local non-profit chartered to create a home for terminally ill people, is hosting Jenkinson in Kingston on Friday, June 3 for the screening of a documentary, Griefwalker. Filmed over a dozen years, it shows Jenkinson in teaching sessions with doctors and nurses, in counseling sessions with dying people and their families and in meditative and frank exchanges with the film’s director (all while paddling around in a birchbark canoe) about the origins and consequences of his ideas for how we live and die.
On Saturday, June 4, a workshop titled “Die Wise: Making Meaning of the Ending of Days” will cover concepts that Jenkinson presents in a book of the same title. After the workshop, a private reception will be held for a limited number of people in a home in Kingston. Ticketholders can enjoy wine and hors d’oeuvres from a local restaurant while sharing experiences with each other, and have another chance to meet with Jenkinson in an intimate setting.
Griefwalker screening, Friday, June 3, 7-9:30 p.m., “Die Wise: Making Meaning of the Ending of Days” workshop, Saturday, June 4, 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m., $20-$165, Health Alliance Hospital Auditorium, 105 Mary’s Avenue, Kingston; (845) 802-0970, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.eventbrite.ca/e/stephen-jenkinson-making-meaning-of-the-ending-of-days-kingston-ny-tickets-21570470859?aff=ebrowse#tickets, https://orphanwisdom.com, www.cfdhv.org.