Interview: Stephen Jenkinson on Right Livelihood


stephenI first heard the name Stephen Jenkinson years ago.

But, it wasn’t until I found myself lying in a bed in the King’s College Hospital in London, England with the very real possibility of death looming over me with its unwelcome finality, that I knew I had to pursue his work further.

“You’d love Stephen’s work!” people would tell me.

“Why’s that?” I’d ask.

“He’s into ancestry, history, language, celtic stuff, decolonization… all the same things you’re into.”

“What are his classes like?”

“Well. He just kind of talks for like 13 hours. It’s not really a workshop kind of thing. But it’s really good!”

“This guy sounds like an arrogant asshole.” and so I never pursued it further. And yet I was curious because of my immense respect for everyone who kept commending him. People for whom I had immense respect. I made a mental note to pursue his work further at some point in the future.

But, lying there staring at the clock on the far wall and clutching onto my friends hand I found myself facing death with no sense of how to relate to it beyond utter terror. Days later, when the fear had begun to abate like a roller coaster winding down, I recalled that I had purchased a DVD of the Canadian Film Board film which featured his work, Griefwalker and never even gotten it out of its packaging.

When I made it home, after cancelling a European Tour I’d spent months of work putting together but had no capacity to deliver on, I slipped the DVD into my computer and watched.

And then I began to get a scent of the reason why so many people had commended his work to me. So I signed up for the Orphan Wisdom School and, in October of 2014 attended, the first of four 5 day sessions at Hollyhock Retreat Center on Cortes Island, BC.

The experience was remarkable but hard to describe. The closest thing I can relate it to was some mix of being fed with stories but, moreso, given the scent of some delicious meal that wasn’t shared to be eaten but to awaken some hunger in me to make that meal, or something like it, inside of myself which, in turn, wasn’t a meal for me to feed people but a meal made in the clay pot of my heart whose scent might bubble over and, if lucky and winds were favourable, might waft into the nostrils of those I come into contact with, and wake up, in them the hunger for something more beautiful and delicious than the denatured, synthetic and uninspiring foods given to them by this culture.

Stephen seems to resist packaging his teachings into easy soundbites, recipes or seven easy steps and this interview is no different. In a world of Andrew Lloyd Webbers, Stephen’s teaching is more like a Stephen Sondheim – you’ve got to work for the music but, if you do, it’s complicated rhythms, odd and unpredictable progressions make it many times more satisfying in the long term.

His work is like a dye being dropped in the water so we might better see the swirling forces of this modern, North American culture and language on us that had, until seeing it, acted on us invisibly and led us to the understandable but crippling conclusion that the swaying and motion came from us rather than the way the water in this cup. A cup that had been stirred by a silver spoon grasped onto so tightly for the fear of going back to the poverty they’d run from generations ago.

And, given that money, economics, business and marketing are some of the key hallmarks of the way the world has come to work and, given that the modern innovations in this grew from my corner of the world, it struck me that he might have some things to say about this whole notion of right livelihood.

I got him on the phone to record an interview in late April of 2015. I caught him hours after having finished a five day session of the Orphan Wisdom School and minutes after having sheared some of his sheep. Sadly, the sound quality was terrible (because skype) but a transcript was made and I share it, with my comments woven in, below. As expected, the conversation took many unexpected turns.


Stephen Jenkinson is a teacher, author, storyteller, spiritual activist, farmer and founder of the Orphan Wisdom School, a teaching house and learning house for the skills of deep living and making human culture. It is rooted in knowing history, being claimed by ancestry, working for a time ?yet to come.? You can learn more about his work at 

Tad: First of all, thanks for making time. I didn’t realize it was right after a whole five days with the Orphan Wisdom School.

Stephen: Right after.

Tad: Well, thank you. Nathalie said you were just straight in from shearing sheep and…

Stephen: Oh, yeah. We just did the last one. Finished about what…I don’t know…20 minutes ago or something.

Tad: Wow.

Stephen: Yeah, it’s quite an ordeal, you know? You’re trying to do it properly, and all the rest, and quickly, which they rarely go together, speaking of livelihood. But I think we did it, and so they’re all done, thankfully, and just as the hot weather’s coming, because that would be very hard on them, because they’re all feeding their young, and so they need a lot of moisture, right, to make that milk and such, and if they’re panting away in the heat, then it’s just too hard on them.

Tad: I guess what had me interested in talking to you about this question is that I have a business called “Marketing for Hippies,” and I travel around helping good folks with the marketing of their businesses. I see so many people wrestling with this dynamic of making money in an economy that they know is based on destroying the world, and it strikes me as, your work has come from this place of helping people find some semblance of sanity in the ending of their days, and here our culture is in the ending of its days.

As you said in one of your videos, “In this sort of terminal swoon where you can’t tell it from a dance,” and so many of the ways that we even think of, in this time that we’re in, to make money still have all these negative consequences. All of our traveling has a consequence. The Internet itself is certainly not neutral to the planet.

We want to keep our work accessible to people, and yet we need to pay our own bills. Most of us — a number of people I work with are drawn to this more traditional village setting, and yet the village is absent, and so we fend for ourselves.

There’s just this big wrestling with, “What does livelihood mean in a time where the world is burning and things are so bad, but we still need to sustain ourselves?” And so I just wanted to set the table, and see what you might have to say about it.

Stephen: Well, you’ve pretty much described what livelihood means at a time like this, but maybe it would be useful to not accept the running gag which is livelihood, as most people mean it.

First of all, wonder if it indeed is connected to any kind of living. We call it making a living. It’s kind of ironic, really, given the case that you just made. It’s certainly not what it is, so maybe take a moment just to wonder about this life, living, livelihood and so on. As you mentioned, I worked in the death trade for a long time, so I have a kind of a quickened appetite for this question of life and being alive, and so on.

I think the first thing that is worth saying out loud that you learn about life, you learn from death. You don’t learn it from things going well. If you look around at people for whom things are going well, they seem to be the last to know this. You have to say, almost in an envious fashion, “But you’re doing well,” and they look at you like either, “That’s what you think,” or, “Well that can’t last,” or, “Depends how you keep track.”

Then you realize, “Man, livelihood is basically a sense of well-being before it’s anything else.” If you think about that, well-being is a capacity. It’s not a default consequence of everything going great. That’s not where a sense of well-being comes from. Otherwise, you’d have no Nelson Mandela, because he seems to have come out of that insanity with something like sanity, and how to understand that, when his sense of well-being was in somebody else’s hands, or was it? They could steal him, but apparently they couldn’t steal from him, and that’s a very compelling example.

“livelihood is basically a sense of well-being before it’s anything else”

So then you go back to these dying people who I was with, hundreds of them, and you realize that there’s nothing inevitable about dying, no matter what anybody says. It’s a machine idea. We think that dying is inevitable, the inevitable consequence of being born. In fact, you should ask, “So who can die?”, and the answer has to be, “Whoever was alive can die.”

Just very quick, a grammar lesson on this matter, verbs in English have two voices, and they’re either passive or active, right? So then you think of the verb “to die,” and then try to use it in the passive voice, in any sentence at all that makes sense, that’s the Queen’s English, so to speak, and you quickly discover you can’t do it. You simply cannot do it, because the English language, mongrel that it is, is whispering to you and I every waking moment when the word “die” comes into it, that dying is not a passive event. It’s not what happens to you. It’s an active thing, grammatically, existentially, spiritually, ontologically, “phenomenologically,” and all those other “logicalies. “

Tad: [laughs]

Stephen: That’s what it is. It’s an active thing, so at some point, it seems like, “Okay, to distinguish it for people listening, from let’s say, cancer, which is often understood to be synonyms. Cancer is what happens to you. Clearly you don’t do cancer, at least not that I’ve heard anybody say, but you certainly do do dying. Cancer is what happens to you. Dying it’s questionable whether you’ll do it or not.

That’s the unintended or unsought consequence of this little grammar lesson, that dying, since it’s what you do, it’s possible not to do it. It’s possible to refuse to do it, to not know that it’s down to you to do it. Certainly it’s possible never to have learned what I just said, or the tremendous adroitness of spirit required to die.

If that’s true, if there’s nothing inevitable about dying, and dying is what endorses life, in the form of food, obviously, then you come to the irreducible observation that it’s not inevitable that you will live, either.

And so both of these things, if they’re not inevitabilities, what are they? Well, they’re not accidents. They’re achievements. That means they’ve got to be rooted in something other than what most of us think is the kind of machine-driven understanding of what it means to be alive and to die. They seem to be just consequences, and in fact, they’re immense human-scaled, mysterious achievements, which is why those cultures who can still call themselves cultures are very, very concerned right at puberty, in crafting personhood, or to use our word, livelihood, out of 12- and 13- year olds.

That’s what’s going on there in the form of initiation, and how does initiation happen? It is by the quixotic and meaning-driven culturally endorsed application of the truth and justice and mercy of that 12-year old’s own personal death. That’s how their personhood arises, from learning their death, you see. So, all of this is not a prelude to what you’ve asked me about. It’s fundamental to what you’ve asked me about, but I can translate a little bit, maybe, and say, “Making a livelihood, it’s the capacity of living people to make livelihoods from life, not to make money from death, from the application of darkness, from the unwillingness to know the consequences of your actions, from the grotesquely inconvenient truth that you may not pull any of this stuff off that we’re talking about right now in a time such as ours. I’ll give you another for instance, since we have the luxury of a little time together here.

“Making a livelihood, it’s the capacity of living people to make livelihoods from life, not to make money from death.”

So, there’s a couple of young men that called me up, they’ve got a little kind of underground eco-anarchist radio station going on, and I love those guys. Anybody who does that kind of thing and is willing to throw gravel in the machinery of “automaticness” has basically got my vote until they prove themselves a disaster, and even then,  I might still line up with them. Who knows?

But these guys asked me two questions in two different interviews, that are worth repeating right now. The first one was, basically, “What should I do if my culture’s dying?”, and I said, “Well, let’s recast the question and say, ‘What does this ask of you, which is a little different.”

Tad: Right.

Stephen: In other words, I’m animating this dying, not just as an impersonal force like gravity, but I’m insisting that it’s a character in our story now, so the way I said it is, judging that they were young by the sound of their voice, “Do either of you have moms that are still alive?” They both did, and I said, “Okay, now let’s say your mom’s dying. Now before I go any further with this, please, let’s say your mom’s dying. Let’s not debate whether she’s dying or not. Let’s not wait for more evidence, find out if the science is correct, not be overly impressed by the melting of the glaciers and so on. Forget all that.”

“Let’s say that she’s dying. Okay, and this is your mom we’re talking about. It’s not an idea. Now, if she’s dying, the question is, ‘What does this ask of you?’ It’s not really, ‘What should you do?’, because where’s that book? How are you going to find that one out?”

“So, how do you discern this? Well, the first order of business is you decide, is it your job to push her over the edge, to get it over with already, because it’s too hard for you, because it’s taking too long, because the signs are distressing, and incomplete, and seem to be asking something of you that shouldn’t be asked of you? Is that it? Is that the math we do?”

“You should push her over the edge so you can see that it’s finally happened, and then what? And then poke the ashes with a stick, is it? What’s the alternative? The alternative that I keep hearing over and over again is, ‘Disappear until it’s over, wait for the phone call, show up for the meeting about the will, and do your best. Live as normal a life as possible under the circumstances in the shattered remains of your family.'”

That’s a little onerous, and it’s a little serious, and it’s the most common scenario that I ever saw in that business, so I say, “All right now, take out mom, and put it culture, and nothing changes.” Exactly the same questions, exactly the same almost involuntary reflex reactivity about either, “Burn the mother fucker down,”… Or what? Or wait for somebody else to do it, or just self-destruct, and then you get to build your castle in the ashes? Or what?

So my claim is that you must be guided by the dying. You can’t be guided by some guy showing up on your Internet with the next program for how to fix all this, the next solution or how to benefit from the downward spiral. “Sorry to hear about the war, but it’s always a good business opportunity,” and so on and so on.

“Sorry to hear about the war, but it’s always a good business opportunity,”

The second question they asked me, and get a load of how good this is. This is why you want to be on the radio with kids like this. They said to me, “Now I don’t know if you know this, but they’re working on a kind of life serum.” I said, “I’m sure they are. What have you heard?”

“Well, they’re working on this thing, this serum for immortality.” I said, “Of course they are.” He said, “You know, it’s not really science fiction,” and I said, “No, no doubt.”

He said, “So here’s my question. Let’s say, within my lifetime,” his, not mine, “they’ll perfect this thing. Now, should I take it? My question to you is, ‘What would I miss?’” Isn’t that fabulous?

Tad: So good.

Stephen: It’s too fabulous, to imagine that it’s not all upside, that no solution that we come up with is principally upside. I’m getting a livelihood, don’t you worry, friends. I’m getting there, okay? But this is a big question, so it deserves a good answer that’s got a lot of wind in it.

I said to him, “You know, that is such a good question, that being a kind of intemperate rabbi, as I guess I’ve become, I can only respond with a question, because it’s the only way to do justice and honour to how much went into what you just sought out.”

“So here goes. If you take that life serum,” the irony of it life serum, “and you don’t die, I don’t think the question is, “What will you miss, though God knows, this is the principal draw on a culture like ours. I think if you don’t die, the question will be, ‘What will me miss? What will the rest of us miss by virtue of you not dying? If dying is what I said earlier, an achievement, and then people just refuse it because they have an out clause in a bottle, what’s the consequence for us all?'”

Forget more people. That’s obvious. But what’s the consequence, day by day, when we don’t get the really stout tutelage of the ending of things coming to visit us, that even that’s negotiable now, even that’s a matter of opinion, depending on how much money you’ve got, whether you’ve got connections with the serum company, and so on.”

So what does this have to do with making a living? Well, to my mind, it has to do with something like this — if you want to do work that’s guaranteed to be clean, I think you’re toast. If you want to know ahead of time that what you’re trying to do is good for fill-in-the-blank, the planet, your family, the community if you can find it, the plants, the whales, if that’s what you want to know ahead of time, you’re in the wrong business.

“If you want to do work that’s guaranteed to be clean, I think you’re toast.”

You shouldn’t be trying to make a living. It doesn’t work that way. The idea that we get clean first, and then put our hands in, is one of the most uninitiated and really untutored orientations to this troubled world that it’s possible to come up with, I think.

I wrote a book some 10 or 12 years ago called “Money and The Soul’s Desires,” and in there, I wasn’t wrestling over this question of clean, making a clean living, a living that doesn’t hurt, but what I did come up with inferentially would be something like this, to answer your question, and then I’ll turn it over to you.

If it’s dying and finally death that basically endorses the food supply, which it does, because every living thing derives its life from the death of the things that were living prior, right? As breakfast was for you this morning, and for me. A death underwrites everything.

Then you come across people who are like political vegans let’s just choose an obvious example and they’re adamant that nothing with a heartbeat or a mother or eyelashes should ever die to keep them alive, and that they imagine that they could craft an economy based on that kind of puritanism. What would it look like?

There’s no question about what it would look like, because we can do the math on a grain-based economy, because that’s largely what we have, and a grain-based economy is one of the most rapacious things imaginable, and has been since Mesopotamia and the Sumerians some 4,500 years ago, speaking for white-skinned folk. Other people got other ground-zeros for that story.

If you look over the period of that time, what had we got? We got agriculture —basically an expansionist  proposition, up, down, and sideways, and it was all grain based. It wasn’t an animal-based activity. It was a grain-based activity. Grain-based agriculture enables population explosion, flat out, because it provides cheap and quick food, you see. It’s a disaster. Cheap food is a disaster for population control.

Man, it’s getting very complicated very fast, and then you want to banish animals from the story, and the consequence is, “Well, how do you think you’re going to fertilize your ground?”, because your grain-based economy’s very hard on the ground. Corn, in particular, is what they call in the trade a very heavy feeder. You cannot recompense the land for what your grain takes out of it with some kind of grain-based, no eyelashes, no motherhood replacement.

In other words, you’re offloading the consequences of your ethical decisions on either another generation or some other sector of the economy, who’s going to make sure that it doesn’t reach you, the news doesn’t reach you that your Puritanism is a disaster for the world. For the right reasons, you did the wrong thing, you see.

I’m kind of upping the ante on the conundrum that you described, and I think properly so.

I guess, finally, on this matter I would say, you’ve got a lot of people who are going to hit, who are hitting 60s and 70s now, as we speak, and then there’s a kind of a narrowing of the waistband of the population in North America, probably in your generation. So somewhere in between, let’s imagine this. Let’s imagine somebody like me being around 70. Let’s imagine somebody 20 or 25 finds them in a mall, let’s just say, and ends up in some idle chatter.

Let’s say the idleness doesn’t suit either one of them, and let’s say they come to something very serious very quickly, and I hope it goes something like this. I hope the younger person says, “You know, when you were my age, if you can afford to remember it, if it doesn’t hurt too bad to remember it, people knew what was happening, didn’t they? They knew about the Monsanto thing, didn’t they? They knew about dirty livelihoods. “

If you’re going to be honest with them, at 70 years old, the answer has to be something like this — “Well, not everybody knew, but everyone could have known if they had turned toward it, yes.” That, I believe, is the right answer.

Then that young person should narrow their eyes, respectfully hopefully, but maybe not, and say, “Well, if you knew, what did you do?”

You see, that’s not a future tense question. That question comes from, “Well, that’s about your past.” In other words, that question’s not coming. That question’s here. The question is, “What are we doing? Not, ‘What did we do?'”, and it seems to me that as troubled as we could easily be by the moral quagmire of making a decent living based on all these decisions that we’ve made, it has to pass through the needle of, “What did you do when you knew the shit was coming down? Your way of living has to be one of the answers. It can’t be, “Well, I made as much money as I could as quickly as I could, and then I got out, and then I started living a moral life.”

“What did you do when you knew the shit was coming down? Your way of living has to be one of the answers.”

It can’t be that. It can’t be that answer. It can’t be, “Well, I kind of walked the tightrope of what was moral and legal and ethical and clean, and I came out shadowy.” I don’t think it can be that either, because it’s really not your or my retirement I’m talking about, it’s really the world that young people today, or even as we speak, are inheriting now. It’s principally already been crafted.

I’m 60 years old. Somebody my age “ongoingly” has to make this call, I think, about what do they owe the world who has sustained them all this time, and making a livelihood is not what they owe the world. Somehow, feeding that which has fed them all along, that is in the neighborhood of the obligation I’m talking about, and the enormous difficulty is that we have to translate that, that there’s no book worth publishing that tells you how to do that. If it does, it treats you like an idiot, and it’s just another program.

The act of being human is the act of translating the brief adult awareness of your time into something that you must do that could be informed by those two questions from those guys on that radio show. “What am I supposed to do if my culture’s dying”, one, and, “What would happen, what would all the rest of us miss, if I refused to die?”

Tad: The thing that struck me so much in what you’re saying, and I haven’t heard you say it this way before, is that if dying is not a given, if it’s an achievement, then therefore living is an achievement, and if there’s this connection between really being alive and livelihood, then there’s something that if we’re not really alive, are we capable, even, of livelihood?

Stephen: You know what the answer is. You’ve already done the math on it, and the answer’s no.

This is why I went to the phrase first, when you asked me about it, because it’s not a given that you will make a livelihood, no matter how much money you’ve got. We’ve got to reserve the word “livelihood” for some kind of life-affirming activity, not something that pays the bills. This is easier to say than it is to live, what I’m about to say, but oh well, here we go.

“It’s not a given that you will make a livelihood, no matter how much money you’ve got.”

This idea that we’ve got to make a living. You hear that. It’s like, “Everybody’s got to die,” and I’ve already dealt with that, to some extent. That’s not really true, that everybody’s going to die. And “everybody’s got to make a living,” how true must that be?

The truth of that is predicated on all the decisions you made, how much indebtedness you took upon yourself. What kind of deal did you make with the person you lived with as to how you’re going to live, and with what, and what would it look like? How little are you willing to live with? How are you going to calibrate what a sense of well-being is going to be?

And then here’s the big one. Those are all preliminaries. This is the big one. You and I are talking, speaking right now in North America in 2015, so here’s what we know, whether we want to know it or not. That people who look like me and you came to this continent as interlopers, as thieves. Now, desperate thieves, yes. All the signs point to the fact that those people that came over were desperate. Yes, absolutely, so they weren’t really freedom fighters, no? They weren’t really seeking a better day, and all of this thing that we’re sold in school about the root condition of white North America. None of that shit’s true. What’s true is these were desperate people running away from something more desperate than they themselves knew how to be.

There’s a lot of different words for it, but for now, let’s just say they weren’t running to anywhere. They were running from something that wasn’t even a place. It was the end of “place.” It was the end of belonging. It was the end of being a people or a community. They were running from all that, and it had been over for so long. It’s not like in the same generation. The trouble came, and the solution presented itself as in what’s called “the middle passage.” Not in the least, but here’s the point that I think we have to be true to. We came over here, desperate, and our desperation showed instantly in how we responded to the people that we found when we got here.

“They were running from something that wasn’t even a place. It was the end of ‘place.'”

The first thing we did was question whether they were people, and that was the very first reaction. The irony of people seeking some kind of freedom, let’s just call it generically, and denying that freedom to the people that they find when they get there, that’s a tragedy beyond expression almost. And still, whether we’re talking about in the 1500s or 1600s, 1700s or 18000s, wave after wave came.

The consequence, for your question, in my mind is this. None of us “stole” this land. Nobody’s alive today well, okay, I’ll back off on that. Most people who are alive today in North America didn’t do any stealing. There’s a little stealing still going on, but by and large, the stealing, the theft, had already taken place, so every time we hear this thing, and I can hear people doing it as I’m saying this. They throw up their hands, and they say, “But it wasn’t me, boss. You’ve got the wrong guy.”

You’re a little late with this thing. Don’t we have to go to what we do about it? Don’t we have to go to, “We’ve got to live with what was done?” Jeez, it sounds an awful lot like the automatic livelihood thing to me, so my answer is, “No, that’s not what we do.”

And I’m not speaking from the Native Americans point of view here. I’m speaking from a white man’s point of view in 2015 in North America, and here goes. I didn’t steal anything, but I sure as hell live off the avails of what was stolen. There’s no question about that. The reason I’m mentioning this is because when we say “got to make a living,” we’re doing it in a place that we’ve already been the beneficiary, the sole beneficiary of our way of life, you see? And we’re talking about, “How do we get some more?” Do you see what I’m saying?

Tad: Yeah.

Stephen: How did this compound fracture of taking and taking ever begin to heal itself if it’s not recognized for what it is? This thing I’m talking about didn’t happen in somebody’s psyche, principally. This thing I’m talking about happened in history, and a lot of people don’t want that history to be true, they want it to be a fact, the meaning of which can be negotiated, right?

Get the Indians to sit at the table, right, and give them they can have their own tribal police force, I guess, if they’re big enough, and they can afford it, but if we can’t have two systems of governance in one place, and you hear this all the time. Why can’t we? And you know what the answer is? Because we won, so it’s the European based, Magna Carta driven, pseudo-democratic idea of who owns what, and how that works, and this is what it’s rooted in.

I know this is a lot of stuff, but why not?

This is what it’s rooted in. We came here. The Earth wasn’t alive, no?

Tad: Right.

Stephen: No, it’s inanimate, and nobody ever uses this word, but I’m going to use it now. When the Christians and the Jews, the non-aligned peoples came over on those boats, and the found the Native American people here, eventually they referred to them as “animates,” and these crazy people thought everything was alive, and they were tormented accordingly, and unsophisticated and overly superstitious, et cetera, and devil-worshiping and all those things.

What did we bring with us that was the perfect antidote to that madness? And the answer is, “We are inanimate.” Inanimate think about what it means. It means we withhold the idea of life from certain things and ascribe it to other things, no? So maybe you make a living from it, but we don’t treat it like it’s alive.

No, the whole extractive orientation that we have to the Earth is a sign, absolutely, of one of two things. Either we never believed in freedom, no matter what we said, and so we’re happily enslaving this live Earth, or it’s impossible to enslave that which isn’t alive. So there’s no such thing as enslaving the Earth, it’s just taking what you can get.

The reason I’m saying this is most of the people listening to this, talking about “Got to make a living” are making a living off the kind of withered — “corpse” might be too strong but it’s heading that way. Let’s say, the withered being on life support, which is the natural world.

Can we really begin to talk about making a human living? For an urban based person, who has made a hundred preliminary decisions, all of which deliver them to the futility of making a living that doesn’t take.

I think all those preliminary decisions are the ones that have got to be challenged, like, “Okay, well, you’re living where you are. Who says you have to live there, and who says you have to have that much stuff to make a go of it there?” Now it starts to get mucky, you see, because you can’t make a program of redemption from a thousand unconsidered preliminary decisions that you made, that deliver you to the idea that you’ve got to make a living in the current regime.

If you decide not to knuckle under to making a living in a way the current regime grants you, then maybe what happens is the shit comes down a little faster, but definitely the travail of that refusal is going to present itself in your life, so we can’t really strike this devil’s bargain of saying, “Okay, I’m troubled, but I would really like to be only troubled from nine to five, five days a week, and I need a little break from the trouble on the weekends and the occasional holiday.” Do you see what I’m saying? It’s more trouble than either one of us wish it was.

Tad: I’m wondering if I can throw in another thread here that I feel like is related, is that in this day and age, there’s one of the songs that’s getting sung a lot is the “Do what you love, follow your bliss,” and that’s kind of like the seed that has grown and propagated itself all over. I’d be curious to hear what your understanding of the crop that’s coming in from that harvest is.

Stephen: Well, I’d like to look at the seed first, the seed idea. I understand the notion. There’s a lot worse notions in the world than that one, but since you brought it up, I’ll speak to it — see if I can.

When I hear a phrase like that, I hear, first of all, a lot of marketing. I hear a lot of ease. That’s what that principally trades on. What is it — “Follow your bliss. Do what you love”? Whatever it is, okay. The first thing that it trades on is that you know what you love. That it’s palpable and obvious to you, what you love. And apparently you can distinguish what you love from what feels good, or what works, or what seems to rescue you from despair. I could go on and on and on, and ask, “Are all of those things ‘love?” Are they? I’m not sure they are.

Seeking some kind of respite from the madness of your days, that don’t sound like love to me. That sounds like coping. That sounds like treading water, thinking that you’re swimming.

So it’s not so obvious that you would know “what you love.” I think that’s an enormous achievement, because there’s nothing inevitable about it. I would say, “You can’t love, but you weren’t on the receiving end of love in your early and formative times to give you an understanding of the dynamic of the thing.” Okay, that may be further afield than you want to go right now.

And then the second thing is, that you have the capacity. Do you? To “love” in this kind of radical no-holds barred redemptive way? Is that true, that that’s as democratic as rain from the sky? I’m not sure that’s true. I think you need a very cultured, highly-crafted humanity that can translate into what needs loving, not, “How do I benefit from loving?” But what is it that needs loving out there? It’s not the most lovable stuff. I think you’d grant that, you know?

“Whenever we do things ceremonial, generally speaking, we don’t do it at the mountaintop. We don’t do it in a beautiful meadow. We don’t do it in a lot of other Class-A ceremonial places. I look for places that are pretty plain. I know as lot of places have been withered by human larceny. Maybe they could use it a little, those places, it seems to me, and those are not easy places to love. Not at all. So you really exercise your humanity trying to do this love thing that we’re talking about, you see.”

Now you understand why. Because what? The mountaintop needs a little human redemption, does it?

And as far as the bliss, I don’t really understand bliss, I suppose, but the idea that if you just do what you love, then everything’s going to get better, sounds a lot like Adam Smith in the mid-1700s, writing about capitalism. If you remember, this idea, I think the phrase that he used was “the invisible hand of capitalism,” that somehow if we all pursue enlightened self-interest, that even though that would appear to pit us against each other in some kind of competitive arrangement, the greater good derives from everyone pursuing the personal good.

That was the basic rap in that period, and that established our understanding of economics to this very day, and that “follow your bliss” sounds an awful lot the same to me.

Tad: It’s interesting, it strikes me. This kind of lifts up this question, which is maybe a more worthy consideration of this “how do we find our role?” in the ecosystem, and I thought you might like this, the word “niche,” that people have niches in nature or whatever, comes from the old French verb “niché,” which means to make a nest. So this idea that people and I see a lot of people these days trying to find their role. They’re seeing what’s happening in the world. They’re seeing that there’s a lot of love that’s needed in a lot of places, and they’re trying to find their role in all of that. I’d just be curious to hear anything that you have to say about this wrestling with and trying to find our role in these times.

Stephen: Sure. I recently published a book called “Dying Wise,” and in there, I crafted this insane and little dark vignette that goes something like this. Let’s imagine the gods being very bored one particular day, and were trying to come up with something that would alleviate the general passage of time.

One suddenly looked up, whether he or she was craftier than the others, whatever. Who knows? But one of them said, “I got it,” and the others looked up, bored, and said, “What?”

“Well, I got it now. Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to invent some humans, okay? Now don’t…just relax. I know we’ve tried that before, but this time, I think I got it. I got the design flaws worked out, so here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to make humans, right? We’re going to put them in the world, okay? And the thing we’re going to imbue them with is this desire for meaning, for purpose. That’s what we’re going to do. It’s going to be amazing. They’re going to be so busy for so long with that thing, and now here’s the great detail, you see. They’re going to be looking for it all over the world, no? They’re going to be running amok looking for it, tearing the world apart looking for it. Here’s the thing. It’s not there. It’ll be so great. Let’s watch.”

Now that’s pretty dark stuff, okay? And a lot of people could testify more or less, that that’s their personal creation story. That’s the one they’re running with these days. That’s what I see in here.

The reason I say that in response to what you’ve asked is, I’m not persuaded for a second that your niche is something waiting for you to find. It sounds like a scavenger hunt, no? If you don’t look in the right place, you blew it, and you wake up at 63 years old saying, “What am I doing to myself?”

I think it comes closer to that question that somebody one-third your age is going to ask you. Not, “Did you find your place that gave you a sense of place and achievement, and rescued you from boredom or from a sense of pointlessness and so on?”, but, “How did you proceed in the teeth, in dancing in the very dragon’s jaw of a time that seems to have all but swallowed whole the idea that humans are capable of principled, meaning-driven purposefulness that can enhance what grants them their life, whether it enhances their personal fortune or not?”

That’s the standard I think we have to hold ourselves to now, because we’re not born in a time where it’s obvious that humans have a fundamental place and purpose in the order of things. It’s simply not obvious anymore, and the irony is, what some clever person has come up with a Latin-based name for the age we find ourselves in now? I think they call it Anthropocene. This is the word I hear bouncing around, which means, basically, a human-centered era, and it’s very difficult for most of us to take two steps from wherever we are, and not cross the path of another person. That’s basically what it looks like.

“We’re not born in a time where it’s obvious that humans have a fundamental place and purpose in the order of things.”

So I’m thinking to myself, “Well, if we’re in the Anthropocene period, that’s what this is. The irony is that we’re more rootless and subject to enormous and really paralyzing bouts of pointlessness at the very time when the era of the world is named after us.”

Who would have ever thought that’s the way it would have gone? Well, I submit to you, they go together. As soon as you have a human-centered calculation about anything, you can see the end of meaning and purpose from there, because humans are not their own reasons for anything. A human-centered humanism, you know the great experiment of the West is swooning as we speak, because we were our own reason, and our humanity wasn’t tethered to anything else. We just tethered to its own kind of ‘achieve’ thing.

But humanity certainly was granted to the world in our form, not granted to us along with the world granted to us so that we could go ahead and do what we want.

So I think the principle challenge now might be for people to be willing to proceed minus a serious encouragement that all will be well if we just do the right thing. I have no idea what the right thing is, but I’m fairly sure that if we’re not willing to begin with the poverties of the time we find ourselves in now, if we don’t root any sense of what must be, in what is, then we’ll be the people that no one will want to claim as ancestors. No one. We’ll be disowned by everyone who comes from us, as the ultimate two or three generations, that we’re so self-absorbed that they believe in their own despair more than any other thing. You know, W. H. Ogden wrote a poem whose name escapes me I’m sorry, but the phrase that comes to me right now from that poem is very telling. To paraphrase it badly, he said, “I suppose now we are of a time and of a kind that we would rather be defeated than be persuaded.”Not a great epithet.

“So I think the principle challenge now might be for people to be willing to proceed minus a serious encouragement that all will be well if we just do the right thing.”

My point is, you noticed I’m not a cheerleader now. I’m just saying, I’m speaking to people as if they not only can hear this, but they must hear this. In other words, are we adults in a time that shows very little promise, or are we not? Or shall we say, “Yeah, but what about me and mine?” Shall we do that again? Or shall we be adults who are capable of knowing at least something of the exquisitely wrought poverty of the time we find ourselves in?

If we don’t begin there, we’re kids, man. We’re kids, and there’s nothing more embarrassing than a 53-year old kid, who’s got their hand out, looking for the same thing that a 23-year old’s looking for. I have a school, right? I call it Orphan Wisdom School, and I ask people to get themselves a little notebook to carry along with them every day. This notebook is to answer only one kind of item, and it’s a little arbitrary, but the list is I ask them to take notes on all the examples that manifest in front of them of the end times that we may indeed be in.

Examples of the end times, not that you make up, but that you actually observe, [laughs] and I don’t know how many of them have done it, but I hope they’re doing it. I don’t hope that it’s books and books long. I hope it’s a couple of pages at most.

But one of them surely is that you know you’re in the end times of your culture at least, when 53-year olds and 23-year olds are marauding the countryside demanding the same thing, in this case, a grief-free, clean livelihood for themselves.

“53-year olds and 23-year olds are marauding the countryside demanding the same thing, in this case, a grief-free, clean livelihood for themselves.”

Tad: That’s definitely a different song being sung than the song of “we deserve more.”

Stephen: I know it, bud. Well, I think that song’s well known, and I’ve forgotten the words, so…

Tad: [laughs]

Stephen: So I can’t sing that one for you.

Tad: Yeah, I really appreciate your sharings around this. As I expected, it went in an unexpected direction. I think that the piece that resonates the most immediately and jumped out at me, again, is that shift from, I know you often speak about the shift from being needy to being…

Stephen: Needed.

Tad: Needed, and that’s so much of the conversation, and it’s something that I witness and see in the business community is very much this, “What’s in it for me, and how do I succeed? How do I get more for myself, and how do I create a business in such a way that I free myself from limits, because limits are the enemy.”

Stephen: Right, and that’s when I’ll be able to do the real good work that the Earth needs of me.

Tad: Right.

Stephen: I got it. I got the general formula. I’ve heard it before. [laughs] I’ve seen different aspects of it before. Look, it’s really understandable. It’s completely understandable, and for all of that, it may be that the way by which we are most recognizable to other people in the world and to different generations to come. We’ll be recognizable as the people who, as the thing was absolutely beginning to spin, we kept saying, “Where’s a safe place, a clean place, for me to establish my thing so that I can get ready for what’s coming?”

That’s how we may very well be known, if we don’t stop saying that we want to be the beneficiary of the good work that we’re looking for, and I’ll tell you what, Tad, all the mail that I get from this, I’ll just forward it directly to you, because after all, these were your questions.

Tad: [laughs] I’ll take it. Well, as we’re in these dying times of this culture, my hope is that we can somehow come face to face with that dying and know it, and in the knowing of it, actually be alive, and in being alive, now, maybe give the chance for future generations to have something that might actually be more recognized as a real livelihood and something that’s feeding what’s been feeding us all along. That’s my hope.

Stephen: That’s my hope, too, man. That’s why we’re both talking about it. The fact that we don’t pretend to have every answer doesn’t mean we don’t think there are any. It just means that we’re not being pre-emptive and making sure that the sorrow doesn’t show through first. That seems to me to be the mandatory…as I said in Vancouver, when they asked me to talk about grief and climate change, which is a bit of a plunky title, but still a worthy thing to allow to collide, those two things, and people walked out, because I decided I needed to talk about grief, because that clearly, in that Vancouver audience was, of the two items in the title, the thing less understood and less lived with.

“The fact that we don’t pretend to have every answer doesn’t mean we don’t think there are any.”

They knew a lot about climate change, and people stormed out, saying, “I thought this was supposed to be about climate change.” Well, I’ll tell you what. It was about the consequences of climate change, and many of them are human. The consequences, the sorrows, are human, so I ended up standing there for the first time, and it just hit me as completely true, that if you awaken in our time now, to real enlightenment, to real awakening, it’s not accompanied by aha or hallelujah, or, “Give me more,” or any of that stuff.

Some don’t even find it, I don’t think. I think awakening today, the sound of awakening is a sob, and basically that’s the sound we’ve just made for the last 45 minutes or so, and it’s completely proper, and if it throws some people off the scent of being happy or of tracking down happiness, good. We’d better stop, I think.

Tad: [laughs]

Stephen: Stop while we’re behind.

Tad: Well, it’s such a pleasure, and I’m looking forward to coming to the second instalment of the Orphan Wisdom School at Hollyhock coming up, and hosting you in Edmonton as well.

You’ve got a bit of a tour coming up, that’s starting in…

Stephen: Nice of you to call it a bit of a tour.

Tad: [laughs]

Stephen: I’ve been taking to calling it “The Man-Killer Tour” around here.

Tad: I can imagine. Is there anything you’d like to say about the tour or things that are coming up?

Stephen: It’s basically all over Canada, all over the United States, although more in the Western part of the hemisphere, because for whatever reason, westerners seem just more amenable where I’m concerned. It’s mysterious. I don’t know exactly why, but a lot of places in the middle and the west half of the continent and then over to the UK, between now and the end of November.

It’s prompted by the appearance of this book, “Die Wise,” but it’s probably not exclusive to that. In other words, it’s not really a promotion or publicity jaunt. It’s plea-making instead of plea bargaining. That’s, I guess, what I’ll be doing. I think my self-appointed task is to be troubled aloud, and that’s probably what I’ll do. You’d be surprised, but there’s more takers than you think there’d be.

Tad: Well, you’ll be troubled aloud, and we’ll be allowed to be troubled. It will be good. So if people want to learn more, they can go to to find out more about Stephen and his work.

Stephen: These things are confirmed, the events are confirmed. They go up there. It’s mysterious to me, but there are people who are willing, and that show some signs of capacity where this all is concerned, and that’s my tribe, as it turns out now.

So let me just say to you, the fact that you’ve thought that there might be something worthy of consideration that would come out of me from you asking these things is really enormously encouraging and honoring of all the people who entrusted me with learning and stuff like that, and so on their behalf, I thank you enormously for this invite, and I’ll look forward to seeing you out there on the road, too.

Tad: All right, take care.

Stephen: And you.


For more of Stephen’s thoughts on money:

About Tad

  • Priceless. Thank you Tad for sharing this jewel of an interview, I’m blown away actually.

  • SarahGlashagel

    Wow. I’m going to have to bookmark this and read it again. And again. And again. It’s funny, I actually started reading and then got a little light-headed and scrolled down, then was captured by something and had to go back up and start over. Thanks so much! =)

  • Pamela

    If you haven’t already done it, do yourself a favor and read this aloud. Like Shakespeare, it’s the only way to really feel it. Thanks to Stephen and Tad for this poetic, courageous, turn-me-inside-out and then back-again post.