“Elders are the axis mundi of our mutual life”
That is a quote from Stephen Jenkinson’s new book Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble. I’ve interviewed Stephen twice before, the first on the issue of ‘right livelihood‘ and the second around the question, ‘Am I ready to teach?‘. As his new book, quotes above, just came out and he is about to hit the road with a North American tour, I thought that the time might be ripe for another interview on this topic of elders.
Because, after all, if elders are so important, then where are they?
This seems to be the central question Stephen is asking and wondering about in his book and it’s a question I see many of my clients wondering about too. Most of them, on their healing journeys, were without the kind of ongoing, deep, sustained, cultural guidance that they now do their best to offer. Most of them did not grow up with any real elders in their lives. Almost all of them have met trainers, workshop leaders, healers, self proclaimed gurus and the like, but that’s different than what Stephen is describing above: the axis mundi of our mutual life.
“An elder Abkhasian woman who was famous for knowing many curses was asked what was the most terrifying curse than can be placed on a human being. Her answer, ‘Let there be no old folks in your house to give you wise counsel, and no young people to heed their advice.” – John Robbins, Healthy at 100
So, what happened? Stephen explores this in his new book, but for this interview I wanted to explore the relationship between the lack of elders we see and the growth of the personal development movement.
The absence of elders from the scene feels important precisely because it is not registering as important for most of us in this dominant civilization. That’s the most compelling evidence there might be that the curse this old Abkhasian woman describes is in full effect. The spell and been cast like a net and we are all caught in it unawares.
Stephen often says that ‘food makes hunger’. You forget you’re hungry until the scent of food being cooked in the kitchen reaches your nostrils.
And then it all comes at once.
You’d gotten so caught up in whatever you were doing that you’d forgotten to eat. Or, you’d been eating the cotton candy, fast food diet of this culture and, while you forgot what real food was, your body did not. It remembered the moment it smelled it.
I think many of us in this modern, dominant culture of North America, walk around with a deep ‘elder hunger’ but we don’t recognize it as such until we meet someone willing to elder. And so, I believe that this book, a visitation of eldership itself, will make hunger.
Stephen makes the case that waking up to this hunger and learning how to contend with it well might be one of the most needed things in this time and place we live in.
Stephen offers no easy answers but instead, urges us to wonder: What is an elder? What is it that crafts an elder? Can one simply pronounce one’s self to be an elder? What does an elder do? Is elder a noun (something you are) or a verb (something you do)? Where have the elders gone? Why did they go? Why aren’t they appearing now at the time when the world needs them most? Why do we have more old people now than we’ve ever had and yet so few elders? How could it be that we’ve had a hundred years of books on personal growth, personal empowerment and leadership, a rapidly growing industry of therapists, ‘shamans’, healers and life coaches, more seminars and retreats than you could shake a stick at, and yet so few elders? What do we do with our hunger for them once it appears? How is it that the elder has become an archetype and no longer a part of the architecture? How has it come to pass that we are instructed to find our inner elder but there is no real-world, institution of elderhood? And, perhaps most importantly, what might it take to conjure the practice of eldership into this world again?
I look around me and I see an immense amount of resentment of young people towards old people today.
I see old people seeking for elders themselves or for someone to recognize them as an elder.
I look around me and see the hunger for convenience, efficiency, ease, freedom and ‘more’ but perhaps we might be better served to open the pages of this book and see if a certain relationship to this old, human hunger might help us conjure the food that the soul of our culture so desperately needs.
I’ll sign off here with another quote from Come of Age. It’s a question, “What will hold the young people in good stead?” I believe that Stephen’s book and his life has been his answer to this question and the invitation to craft our days so that it might be the same.
Note: I wrote this as if you’ve read Come of Age. If you haven’t, buy the book and reread this interview. You’ll see new things you missed the first time.
To Listen to the Recording of This Interview Click Here
And before you dive into the interview, I invite you to listen to the opening track of a CD recorded from their last tour – Nights of Grief and Mystery by clicking on the album below…
Tad Hargrave: Welcome everyone. This is Tad Hargrave from www.MarketingForHippies.com and I am here today with Stephen Jenkinson who is the author of the book Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble. Welcome, Stephen.
Stephen Jenkinson: Tad, thank you.
Tad: You write so beautifully in your book about elderhood and the function it plays in the lives of many cultures, some still and in our own cultures in times past, the consequences of its absence, and how it might have come to be that we are where we are. When I think about these cultures, where that function of elder is still intact, it seems that we’re a long way from Kansas – at least in North America these days. We seem to live – first of all, if you’re listening and you haven’t gotten a copy of Stephen’s book Come of Age, I urge you to get a copy, and if you go to get it. If you get it in a bookstore, you’re going to find that book in or near a section called personal growth. It seems that there’s some relationship of … when there aren’t elders in our midst, we seem to have this swelling raft of life coaches, therapists, semi-qualified gurus, YouTube personalities, and workshop leaders. I’m curious for you, what do you see when you look out and see that? When you see the size of half the book store in a lot of bookstores, I’m curious what your read on that is?
Stephen: First of all, that might be the only kind of bookstore there is anymore, with a fiction section tacked on the back side of it as if you can distinguish the fiction section from the self help section which I’m not persuaded that a distinction should be made between those two enterprises. There’s a lot of fiction involved in both of them.
First of all, I don’t see the characterization that you made, that there is a conscious awareness and something approaching mournfulness or a lament about “no elders in our midst.” I don’t think that’s a shared take, largely because I don’t think people have looked at it and decided otherwise. I think there’s absolutely no attention given to that question, that possibility, that rupture, that lacuna in the cultural life or whatever we have instead of a cultural life.
“So, there’s the first dilemma is that the absence of elders doesn’t detonate, doesn’t register.”
So, there’s the first dilemma is that the absence of elders doesn’t detonate, doesn’t register. It metastasizes, and you’ve described one of the tumours that people will pay for tutelage, if you will, but the understanding of what the actual qualities of the tutor might be is do they have a website or is your friend going, or do people testify to having appeared at these things with a deeply enhanced sense of purpose and reason, and give a shit, and some clarity about how to giddy-up because that’s obviously what sells, right?
Nobody goes to an event to have the world changed in a way that changes them, in a way they didn’t count on, not from what I see. All of this is to say, when I look out on this thing, I have kind of a second order malaise over and above the one that you described which is I wonder when and if, or even should the dominant culture of North America actually long after elders.
I don’t think that’s operative but it has a lot of consequences. The failure to identify that and to legitimately long for something that you’re not going to get, in all likelihood, is something I deeply recommend but I don’t see it practiced very much. I have to stand up there night after night, day after day, and week after week at these events and actually make the case for a kind of catatonia about this thing, a functional coping catatonia, which is what I think all the self help thing is.
Particularly, I don’t know what to call it. Let’s just call it a dangerous emphasis on growth. It is after all called the personal growth or the human potential, or the humanist tradition, whatever you want to call it, but all of those imply that you’re probably not good enough as you are, which, okay, that’s not an unreasonable take, depending on what the criteria are.
But, then the prescription is ‘more’. The prescription is never ‘less’. I don’t think, not that I’ve ever heard – I was talking to a guy whose kids were coming, let’s say eight, nine, ten years old, somewhere in there. We were talking about parenting and the slings and arrows of it all.
He was deeply motivated in the conversation by misgivings about whether or not he would be able to provide for them, the standard provider-gene dilemma that was coming up in the conversation. I don’t know what possessed me but I dropped this in to the midst of his lament.
I said, “Do you know, if you really want to love your kids in a way that’s contemporary and responsible both, you might consider a strange truism. Your kids deserve less than you had when you were their age.” There was absolute silence on the other side of the phone. It just didn’t go anywhere at first.
“Your kids deserve less than you had when you were their age.”
Your kids deserve less than you had when you were their age. Of course, when you start working on it, I think quietly it begins to move inside you but it sort of categorically, it’s apostasy frankly. Then you just tie a couple of things together, and it’s not. It’s a well wrought necklace, and it goes like this.
Well, the world that we have, the corner of the world that I live in is a direct consequence of several generations feeling the obligation as young parents to provide their children with more than what they had. The more is the devastation of the world. That’s where the more comes from. Period.
There’s not a lot to negotiate about that. That’s the mania and that’s the consequence. At the very least, your children – and I use the word deserve deliberately – they deserve less, not in a sense of deprivation less but in the sense of less bloating, less swelling, less walking in your own footsteps.
This is what the growth mania predicts for us all is we become more of ourselves. No matter that if people veer away from the material increment of that, still in all, the notion of growth does not imply reduction, diminishment, thinning out, winnowing away, being reduced in place and time. None of that is included.
If it does include it at all, it’s a preliminary stage from which you enter into ever deeper swaths of more, of growth and ‘if you’re not busy growing, you’re busy dying’ apparently to paraphrase Dylan. I guess my case on the whole matter is I take my cue from wine in this regard.
I wrote about it in that book. Thank you, by the way, for the acknowledgement of the quality of writing. I don’t know if that’s a boon or a challenge, or even some way that makes the reading and entering into the sorrow of it perhaps more difficult. I don’t know. In that, I wondered about wine.
I should say that I’m not a wine guy. I can’t talk about all those adjectives about wine but I’ve come to appreciate it in the second half of my allotment. I didn’t know anything about it. I thought it was either red or white, or black or white for that matter.
I’ve learned that there’s a subtlety and there’s a universe in there, and I’ve come to appreciate it, and the devotees and the rest. For all of that, we could be really deeply educated in this fashion. Let’s say you start out ten years ago with 100 gallons of grape juice, and whatever else gets added.
You’re ten years down the road, if you can afford to keep it in a bottle for ten years as a vintner. Let’s imagine that you’ve come up with some extraordinary wine over that ten year period because the vintage was kind to you, and the barrels were kind, and whatever else the reasons are.
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the only way you got good wine from grape juice is that you ended up with less wine, and that’s how you got it, less wine. In other words, the only way to get something that good is to give up in volume what you gain in depth. In other words, the recipe there is clearly for diminishment in wine and perhaps in life too.
There’s something about depth that requires diminishment because failing that, you opt for growth. You become more capable as you go along, and I don’t know where this more is supposed to come from but like all acquisitive projects, there are holes left in the ground by virtue of your insistence on becoming all you could be.
There are holes left in the ground, and the basic humanist orientation simply is not having that, but any other program for growth, be it economic or recreational, look around and in five seconds, you’ll see a direct consequence somewhere in the world for your ability to have a recreational weekend, or whatever it might be.
There’s no program for more that doesn’t take from somewhere to contribute to the more-ness, it seems to me.
Tad: This is something I’m curious about because the orientation of so much of the new age or personal growth scene we’re talking about says, “Okay, we’ll acknowledge that there are holes in the ground and that there are troubles in the world, and the best way that we can contend with that is to put on your own oxygen mask first and to heal yourself, and that will inevitably lead to the healing of others and the world.” You don’t seem particularly convinced of that approach is my sense. I’m curious what your understanding of that is.
Stephen: First of all, the notion of healing yourself is hilarious frankly. I mean, that’s like changing your mind. It’s easy to say, and it’s not a matter of changing attitude. Changing mind is fundamental. It’s an architectural alteration that requires building permits when we’re talking about the psyche.
“the notion of healing yourself is hilarious frankly.”
Very simply put, if the enterprise is to change your mind, the question becomes who is doing the changing. The answer is you but okay, is that different from your mind? The mind that you propose to change, is that the one that’s doing the calculation for the change, that’s itemizing what kind of change and what kind of increment, and how far, and how long, and why?
Does the unchanged mind register the need for a change to the mind? Does it? How could it? It may identify itself as unhappy but this is something else. Changing mind is not changing the weather. It’s changing the architecture, it seems to me.
That’s the first dilemma is that there’s an unchanged mind simply generates from the kind of inner architectural digest magazine, the favorite kitchen and the favorite entrance way of one’s psyche and one’s soul. That’s where the notion of change comes from.
There’s a paradigm program. The problem is that the perception of the change needed comes from the unchanged. Then every prescription, every recipe for the change carries this germ of the unchanged in it, and you’re not five seconds away from what I’ve come to call junky wisdom in this regard.
Every junky knows that he or she should stop using, and they all have a solution for how to do that, at least on their better days. Every one of the solutions includes the junk. I can’t escape the parallel between that and the self help movement, or the self improvement brigade. I can’t.
The parallel is so exact and so broad that it’s inescapable. That’s not to say that your mind can’t be changed but you can’t do it yourself. It’s one of the reasons there are other humans in the world at a given time is that your world and your life is changed as a consequence of the presence of other people in it, not fundamentally as a consequence of your withdrawal into the pristine event that you have yet to become.
At least after 64 years of looking around, that’s the way it occurs to me. I think it’s fundamentally irresponsible to enter into a deal, a kind of Faustian deal that you make with yourself that says, “I know the world is in rough shape. I know my corner of the world has benefitted fiercely and unfairly, and we’re beginning to bear the signs now. That’s all true, and I feel the personal increment of that fiercely. So, what I’m going to do is withdraw from the fray and leave it to the rest of you, and I will self improve. And once I’ve done that to my apparently to my own satisfaction, you can count on me and I’ll be in for the duration,” although I don’t really hear those kinds of vows.
I’m imagining that that’s the imagining of why one works on oneself, and we ask the world to wait, or we ask the workers that are left to keep working, and apparently they’ve worked on themselves, and that’s why they’re continuing to work whereas I wouldn’t assume that for a second. At some point, there’s a choice that has to be made in a time like the one we’re in.
“There’s no retirement from the siren song of a troubled time.” excerpt from Come of Age
We have, as the book title so gorgeously has observed, we’ve had over 100 years of psychotherapy in the west, and the world is by every measure in worse shape than it was, during the same period of time in which we’ve relished in self discovery. Now, I’m not saying it’s a simple cause and effect because it’s a complicated thing to observe but I’m saying this… that the willingness of western people to disappear or to retreat for considerable periods of time because the news is too bad, because there’s too much information – whatever the motivations are – leaves the field cleared for the convicted, for those utterly and absolutely convinced. These are the ones that Yeats was talking about in The Second Coming, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Alas, I have from time to time, and I don’t brag about it a bit. I’ve wrestled with myself about teaching at sort of retreat centers and things like this, and I haven’t felt that it’s a good thing to do. On occasion, I’ve done it because I wanted to find out how wrong I could be about that estimation.
Alas, I found that I wasn’t wrong about it, in principle at least. I offer this little exercise up to you, and I’ve been tempted to do it. I’ve never done it. Someday I think I will, to take the season’s offerings from a given retreat center or self help emporium and simply clip out the names of the seminars or the sessions – just the names, no other identifying information at all – and put them in a hat, walk out into the street somewhere, and shake up the hat, and ask people to reach in and choose three of these things.
Then they read them and you ask them, “What are these? Where do they come from? What are they about?” Anyway, I want to do it because I want to hear what the person on the road is likely to say about them. My guess is that there would be very little inclination to guess that these were recipes for becoming a better you.
Tad: You’d referenced James Hillman and Michael Venture’s book, and I’m curious what you see as the difference in functions, I know you worked as a counselor for awhile, and now I see you experience you, and I know many others do as well, playing this elder function very beautifully in the world. I know you’ve been on the receiving end of that as well. I’m curious how you would articulate the difference in the functions between therapist or counselor, or things in that vein and this function of eldering.
Stephen: That’s a good question. I’m going to have to think about it by answering. First thing is I wouldn’t want to drive a hard and fast wedge between those two functions. I wouldn’t want to be dogmatic about it and not be able to imagine the people whose business card says counselor or something are not capable of the elder function, or vice versa.
Maybe we could talk in a general way about what tends to characterize counseling in a general sort of way. It seems to me that you’re unlikely to make much of a living as a counselor if you do not engage, pretty thoroughly, in an act of clear and consistent corroboration. I just can’t imagine it working out for you.
What would the word-of-mouth be on you if you were not engaged in corroborating people’s basic take on life and what’s necessary, and how to get there, and things of that order? I don’t think the word would be very kind about you.
I learned this, frankly, in the death trade. This is where it occurred to me, where I realized that the basic counseling dynamics and paradigms were grotesque parodies of what dying people deserve from us, largely because dying people aren’t customers, so they aren’t to be satisfied whereas in the counseling game, there is a degree of customer so there’s a degree of customer satisfaction.
Even if you try to do it an end run around it, you’re going to recraft it so that you’re secretly satisfying the secret customer by overtly subverting the overt customer. Do you see what I mean? By prescribing things like ‘becoming comfortable with your discomfort’ as one of the classics, whereas you’re still trafficking comfort but you’ve introduced discomfort as one of the ways to become comfortable.
“It’s an utter shell game.”
It’s an utter shell game. All of this is to say two things. I had a gig on the weekend in Toronto, and I was introduced – it was a very kind introduction, and rather lengthy, so very hard to live up to, at least for the following two hours because you need a few years to live up to a lively introduction. It puts you in a bit of a hole.
One of the words she used to describe me was ‘visionary’. I don’t know why but I took that one on when I stood up, and I thanked her very much. I said, “As to the visionary thing, I’m just not persuaded about it. It’s rather lofty but divisionary maybe. It seems to me that that’s what I’ve become, not a visionary so much as a divisionary, and trying to live up to that.”
I took my cue from the death trade wherein I began to understand that people deserve things from us that they would never ask for. They deserve to die well when their intention was not to die at all. Okay, so how do you possibly get return business, generate return business, leaving aside the dying aspect of things?
How do you get return business when your fundamental obligation is to subvert people’s root conviction about what they deserve, about what life is for, about what this time of life asks of you, your fundamental obligations as a citizen, your obligations to the generations to come? How are you going to get anybody to come back if you take these things in hand when they’re not asking you to do it, because of course they come to you as a counselor with some degree of personal torment that’s brought them there?
“How do you get return business when your fundamental obligation is to subvert people’s root conviction about what they deserve?”
Then over and above all of that, you have this frankly terrible dilemma – at least to me it is – where you are about to send the person, whatever changes you were able to engineer in their psyche, out into the world, an unchanged world, the very world and its unchangedness that drove them to your door in the first place. You’re about to cast them loose into the same unchanged place. There’s just something about that conceit that I can’t abide. That’s all. I’m not saying nobody else should but I can’t. I can’t practice that way. I can’t see the world that way.
Now let me bring in the world elder here and imagine that it is in the function of elderhood, that it’s not activated by personal unhappiness, that it’s not geared to personal satisfaction because fundamentally elder is not a personality. It’s not a character type. It’s not a particular wrinkle of personality.
It’s not in that sense in any way unique. In living cultures, it’s a position if you will. It’s a kind of status. Minus that, you can still talk about it. I talk about it as a function instead of as an identify. In a world of ‘identify politics’, this is an extraordinarily radical proposition.
The function among others of elderhood is to subvert identity mania because elderhood itself is not an identity. It is when things are going well, the end of fixed identity. How does that happen? It happens because elderhood is, first of all and lastly, a child of its time.
The particular responsibilities that befall elderhood all are derived from the particular dilemmas of the time that the elder is born into. As such, the elder’s own personal life is simply a cipher or kind of a temporary surrogate until the elder catches wind of the prevailing currents of the time.
That’s where the elder’s jobs and responsibilities are derived from, from what prevails, not from personal needs, longings, hurts, slights, sacrifices, or diminishments. If I put all that together, that’s why I said I’m not saying the two functions couldn’t find their way towards one person’s work.
I’d love to believe that that’s possible. The fact that I haven’t seen it very much doesn’t mean that it’s not out there but I would say that there’s something about counseling in its way that does remain mired in the idea that you have to gain the confidence, trust, and so on of the client whereas in the circumstance of elderhood, one of the elder’s jobs is to subvert the usually occurring understanding of what constitutes trust, just for starters.
Elders are not trustworthy by an unexamined understanding of what trust is.
Tad: I’ve heard you speak about older people appearing at your events and wanting some sort of stamp of approval or certification that they are indeed elders, and wanting to be recognized in some way, validated, and yet this doesn’t seem like any manner of eldering to be obsessed with, “What about me?” and at such a late stage in life. I find myself thinking about that question that Parzival asks the Fisher King, or one of the versions of it when he asks finally, “Whom does the grail serve?” I find myself wondering whom or what does eldering serve? What is it that eldering sustains? What flourishes, if all goes well, in the presence of eldering if it’s not ‘me feeling comfortable’?
Stephen: If eldering is prevailing, there’s not much eldering going on. Why? Because it’s the elder’s principal responsibility to work themselves out of a position. If they’re doing their job well, there’s no job to do. Why? Because the fundamental understandings of the time have been democratized, that’s why, not that they’re evenly distributed across the culture but if the elder function is in full effect, it becomes so sublime as to it’s kind of hard to register, and it’s indistinguishable from old people sitting there leaning on something, appearing not to do very much. Let me take about two minutes to elaborate a kind of envisionable story. There’s the idea out there that elders are somehow inherently strong and capable but you could easily imagine elderhood or elders as being exemplars of failure and ruination.
“If eldering is prevailing, there’s not much eldering going on.”
They actually provide active and mandatory instruction in the nuances of failure, the understanding being that wherever humans are wildly successful at what they want to be successful in, the world almost inevitably suffers as a consequence. At the end of the day, to answer your question way back when, an elders principle job is that they’re anointed by the world and by their times.
That anointment is recognized by the culture but not initiated by it. The culture employs the anointed status that the world confers upon the capable elder. This is how the world continues to appear in the elder function, the nurturing after the world, the concern after the natural order of things.
One way you could understand this is probably like you, I’ve been in more than a few dentists’ offices, looking at old copies of National Geographic. In these copies, sooner or later you will find yet another “lost civilization” as they’re typically called where they’ve been digging around and they just can’t figure out what happened to these people. Of course, climate change or degradation of the soil are the usual culprits.
There’s no thought apparently lent to the considerably likely possibility that deeply cultured people cottoned onto the idea that enough of them were in the same place for a fixed period of time, that had a degrading consequence upon the place they claimed as their home, and they were claimed by.
In other words, their love of the place that they called their home eventually turns into a willingness not to be there. That’s sort of the more radical expression of a love of a place is to leave it alone and not to occupy it. This never comes up in the writings about it. It never comes up as an aspect of philosophical enquiry. Why not?
Generally speaking, it’s because our understanding of growth is incremental and acquisitive. Our understanding of love is attachment and increase, a spooky parallel to growth. There’s no notion whatsoever that an act of love could include parting from that which you love for the sake of that which you love.
That I would submit to you is an elder function, to see that necessity rising on the horizon and to deeply advocate for it. That’s what happened to some of those people in some of those places, that they looked up one day and realized that it wasn’t working, because it was, and because of that, “For God so loved the world,” I think that’s somewhere in the New Testament.
How about this? Cultured people so loved the world that they’re hard to find, they don’t stay in one place for untold generations. It’s a very strange and sort of mournful proposition but I’m suggesting to you that it is in the realm of the elder function to be willing to see the deeply unwelcome proposition that our well-intended presence has a kind of deleterious consequence that we simply don’t calculate.
It asks us to see it and to respond accordingly, lovingly, not self-hatred wise, not misanthropicly but lovingly. Misanthropy is a human’s response to our excesses and the irony about misanthropy is it’s another human excess. It’s so wretchedly unnecessary and so apparently called for but if you look around, you don’t see much of a world affirming things that comes out of misanthropy.
“Misanthropy is a human’s response to our excesses and the irony about misanthropy is it’s another human excess.”
As it happens, humans are only incidentally the victims of our excesses, only incidentally, the world considerably so. Yet it would not appear that there’s any life form in the world that has generated misanthropy as a response or as a solution to our excesses. The only life form on the planet that seems to have come up with that solution is guess who – those who are occupying the anthropy scene.
You could say self hatred is another aspect of our excess and another form of our self absorption continuing to make us a clown of creation inadvertently.
Tad: It’s interesting when you speak about the need to see this and see it lovingly. I was reflecting a few weeks ago about this theme that I see in all of your books. There’s a thread that seems to go through all of them. The first, there was How it All Could Be but then there’s the book about money, and then there’s the book about dying, and now this book about elderhood. I know you have a book coming up around matrimony. The theme that I see is that all of these are artifacts of culture. There’s a way, and I’ve heard you speak about this. It’s such a compelling approach, this way of looking at things prismatically. I remember you speaking about dying and how you could see the dominant culture of North America there at the bedside, and often in the school I hear you speak about, “It’s all here in the room. We don’t need to go anywhere,”. I think of the Dark Side of the Moon album cover where the light is going in the one side of the prism and comes out refracted on this other side. We can see the constituent elements of the light just like your books help us see the constituent elements of the artifacts of this culture (i.e. in money, dying and elderhood). This to me has been one of the more profound pieces I’ve had the pleasure of being on the receiving end for you, this capacity you have to see things prismatically; to see the culture in things. That’s the theme I see in your books, the capacity to look at ordinary things in a prismatic way and thus to really see them for the first time. I find myself wondering because this is the type of thing that people could be doing with any part of this culture, any work that they are engaged in. There’s the capacity, the possibility of seeing that thing, be it massage, woodwork, life-coaching, crafting, permaculture or more, in a prismatic way. I find myself curious how you came to that way of seeing and if there’s any wisdom you would share with people about how to see things in that way or what questions might be asked. How does one learn to do this?
Stephen: Well, it’s probably extremely expensive which is one of the reasons that it’s rare, if you say that it is. It’s extremely expensive in the sense that it’s relentlessly revealing of what would rather stay in the shadow. It’s a very costly enterprise to wonder, and then again to wonder about your wondering.
It’s not uncertainty, nor is it its opposite. It’s a kind of, I don’t know, devotion I suppose. We’re not in the most devout of times. We’re in a time that’s riddled by certainties of conviction and prejudice, but that’s not what I mean by devotion.
I think the way it probably came to me, certainly I didn’t pursue it because I never would have known anything about it and I certainly was not “instructed” in it because this is the undoing of it. If you’re not exposed to the practice of it, there’s no way for you to come to it.
Minus the practitioners, you have only teachers. I guess I would put it this way. What I was lucky enough to be in on from probably a very early age is stories of all things, and stories are not just ‘one thing after another’. Stories have a very particular arc or you could say only stories have arc.
Arguments don’t. Diatribes don’t. They have intentions. They have sometimes diabolical strategies but there’s nothing strategic about a story. A story has a kind of arc that’s somewhat user friendly but absolutely world friendly. There’s something about the arc of a story that is as naturally occurring as snowfall or the rain that’s falling just outside the door as I’m talking to you now.
“A story has a kind of arc that’s somewhat user friendly but absolutely world friendly”
Naturally occurring doesn’t mean without consequence, by the way. It doesn’t mean benign but it certainly means that it’s in the order of things, that stories virtually seem to tell themselves although God knows they need a good teller, and they need a good hearer to appear as a story. I was exposed to the arc and the lilt of storyness or storydom, or something from a very early age.
Of this I’m fairly certain because I’ve never not heard that way. It’s in my ear, not a particular story, but storyness is in my ear and everything is available to me that way. I’ve found that people credit me with a certain capacity for memory but it’s not a factual memory.
The memory that I have is a kind of nuanced Geiger counter of ‘story movement’. That’s how I remember things, because the story suggests in almost a serpentine fashion what preceded the moment that you’re enquiring after right now, and with enough attention to that, the story begins to suggest to you something about the moment that you have not quite arrived at yet.
There’s at least three increments ongoing at any given moment that are available to you, not quite past, present, future, what we normally mean by those terms but certainly they’re in there. I did an interview years ago on a little radio station. I came in and sat down.
The first thing the guy asked me was, “So it seems you’re capable of slowing down time,” which wasn’t really a question. It rather stymies what the proper answer should be but I think this is what he was talking about. I think he meant something like this.
When you’re talking about a given thing, certainly not all the time but if I’m on my game, let’s say, then there’s something in this storyness that, if we enter into it together, you can feel the thickness or the thinness of different kinds of time. You can feel the current and the currency of those different kinds.
They’re not all the same. They don’t move all the same way. They don’t have the same consequence for you. Maybe that’s what he was talking about. Certainly, that’s the way it appears to me. There’s clusters of times, and then sometimes they thin out to the point where they’re almost negligible.
If anybody is interested, though I wouldn’t know why after that description but if they are in pursuing this particular way of coming to things, prismatic sort of attention span as you’ve described it, then they could do worse and probably have done than to attend to stories, not for their own sake, not as decorative things but as a kind of an alchemy.
In that sense, it seems to me that maybe elders have a similar consequence simply by their elder function. They have a kind of alchemical consequence that ensues from them, that’s beyond inspiring or dispiriting. It’s simply beyond the realm of whether you welcome it or not.
It kind of mobilizes you in ways that would never have occurred to you, either to approve of or disapprove of. Stories and elders in that way, they’re kind of one recognizes the other. It’s no surprise that elders are fundamentally storytellers.
If you just take the Jesus example, he was a little young so he probably doesn’t qualify for the elder status but in the formulations that you read in the New Testament, he’s asked a question. It’s usually a question that’s designed to back him into a corner or get him some sort of logical impossibility to ponder.
“Who is my neighbor? Who am I supposed to pay this money to in taxes?”, or half a dozen other things, and he responds as, “You’ve heard the one about…” like that. Who knows if that actually went the way it went but the fact that that passed through God knows how many iterations before it was approved of as the canonical declaration of what Jesus actually said, and so many of them remain stories, palpably stories.
They call them teaching stories but there’s no such thing. That’s not what stories are. If they’re teaching, then they’re kind of finger wagging, and that’s not a story because a story doesn’t need a finger to wag. A story just says, “Well, there’s this guy walking down the road. Some strangers came upon him and beat him up, left him there for dead,” and you’re thinking, “My God, this is the answer to my question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’”
The point is, you’re still not told who is your neighbour because the story simply steps outside of the terms and conditions that your little question dictated. It simply steps around them and proceeds to tell the story, and invites you reinhabit the narrow confines of your question once the story is over, if you insist.
Otherwise, it gives you another kind of universe to inhabit where cause and effect are not really the story’s servants. They’re its executioners.
Tad: So many colourful threads there to weave together. It’s interesting, when I read your writing, it feels like you’re doing something very different than I see many authors doing. I see many authors essentially, at least in this personal growth scene I’ll say, there’s a lot of regurgitating the culture’s unquestioned back to the question. What is written is perhaps more acceptable because it neatly fits within, what you write about as “the spells of the west” in Come of Age. The book feels very affirming at a certain level. There’s a sense of, “Yes, that fits with what I’ve been told and I already know,” and yet you seem to be doing a very similar thing of handing people’s assumptions back to them, or their habits of thinking on them as back to them, and dropping the dye in the swirling water so they can actually see the swirl. Your focus in these four books seems to be about helping people learn the constituent elements of that which you’re discussing – using the topics of the books as a sort of prism with which to refract the light of the culture. You help make the culture apparent in it rather than reiterating the culture. So much of the work I’ve seen out there seems to facilitate and encourage, and deepen introspection, and your work seems to call for a kind of outrospection, not that there’s a binary between the two. I see this call to the see the world. One of the things I was curious to ask you about, because you brought up Jesus and parables, and storytelling… it seems like a central approach that many people use in these days in teaching all things, all matters spiritual and personal growth is that of a metaphor and similes and such. I think the way it’s rendered is, “Well yes, you see Jesus, he was using a simile. He was saying, ‘This is like this, and you already know this thing. Here is the unknown thing. This simile will be a bridge between the two,’” piercing our modern language a lot. On the ride home from the Apprentice Program, there were a few of us in the car and we played a game with it because we noticed how often we were saying “like” and it was horrifying us. “You know, like, it’s like.”
Stephen: It horrifies me too.
Tad: There’s a simile in the language because we’re not saying, “This is this.” We’re saying, “It’s like, it’s sort of, it’s as if.” We were calling each other on it. It seems very wrought in our language.
Stephen: What did you come up with as to why you have so much recourse to that word?
Tad: One is approval of each other, that to speak eloquently requires a certain slowing down and a tension, a formality in a way. One passenger in the car speaks English as a second or third language. She was sharing how of course, there’s a wanting to fit in, wanting to have the slang and wanting to be a part of the group and not speak so formally. There was that, and it also occurred to me that it’s very tied to this way of seeing the world where things are like things, so we don’t have to say the thing we think. We can hedge it. The habit was so deep. We would say it and then someone would look at us and we’d reply, “Did I just say it again?” I guess I found myself wondering what are the unintended consequences of trafficking in metaphor and simile because it’s recommended, it’s encouraged. This seems to be the way of teaching but what does it do to us, to the world, to our capacity to learn, to be trafficking in this?
Stephen: I think one of the things that it continues to do is mitigate against any possibility of seeing things otherwise. When you traffic in all the proximals, “like, such as, sort of, sort of like, kind of like,” these are more than reflexes now. These are surrogates for speaking, and not just in idle conversation either, in un-idle conversation too.
One of the consequences of doing that is you’re forever likening, literally, the thing that you’re trying to approach linguistically with the things that you’ve already approached linguistically. Now, you might think that works well when you’re trafficking in information because there’s information that people don’t know, that’s new to them.
If you find some way to compare it to something they already know, then this is some kind of entree of the new into the existing. That’s called going mainstream. A lot of people are hankering after mainstream attention and notoriety, and all the rest. How do you get it?
By resembling so faithfully something that’s already there with the particular kind of glow that all the other knowns don’t quite have because it’s been worn away. My point I guess is this, that when you do this kind of thing, you blunt pretty much permanently the ability to be wrong.
This is the first casualty. You could never be wrong if you’re trafficking in vague associative ways of speaking. If you say it’s “kind of like,” how could you be possibly be busted for that? If somebody says, “It’s not really like that.” You can reply “Well, it’s kind of like that.” It doesn’t mean anything either way anymore.
What if there are some things that are so without precedent that they’re not like anything at all? Can they even appear on your radar? My answer is not on your radar, no, but they can appear in your conscience. How can they do that? By not being obliged to lose their ramshackling power by having to fit into the scheme that you’ve already established for understanding
Many’s the time I get a response in school or otherwise that claims that the thing I’m talking about is hard to understand. Now, I use pretty simple language I think, and so it’s not a vocabulary problem. It’s not even really a conceptual vocabulary problem.
The problem that people are running into, and not really alerting themselves to, is the unwillingness to consider it, and there’s an active unwillingness to consider. Why? Because it’s too expensive to consider, because if you really consider some fundamental alternative to the current regime, there’s something about your ability to get out of bed that’s going to be compromised.
Somewhere in there, you kind of know that or you know it enough to know not to go any further. One of the classic ways of defending yourself is by “not understanding”. Isn’t that a bizarre strategy? I’ve seen it many times. One of the ways you maintain your “not understanding” is by trafficking in a language that says that you have to approach my normal way of talking with what you’re saying for me to understand you, never mind the fact that my normal way of talking precludes anything fundamentally new and challenging, and undoing, and unhinging from coming in.
That’s an awful lot to lay on a word with four letters, “like,” but there’s a reason that, to my mind, the most skillful storytellers are not people who traffic in similes or metaphor, or allegory. Why? Because all of these words point back to the known, the familiar; they’re the touchstone.
“the most skillful storytellers are not people who traffic in similes or metaphor, or allegory”
Like – I just said it myself. You see children in the mall absolutely enthralled by that shit on the shelves at Toys R Us for a little while, and depending on their age, they’ll suddenly look up from their kind of hypoglycemic exposure to these toys, and look for you know who, and if they can’t see her – more often her than him – then the whole attraction to what’s going on is suspended, and they go on a mad search for the mother-ship.
Do you see what I’m saying? People do this linguistically all the time, and that’s what “like” is. It’s groping for the mother-ship in this dark when you’re in Toys R Us and you’ve decided that the toys aren’t enough to head off the fact that you’re not quite at home after all.
“Like” is the attempt to make everything into an effigy of your home, what you’re familiar with. It’s essentially like a Best Western hotel everywhere in the world. They’re all the same. That’s what they’re selling you. When you’re in the Best Western in Dubai, you’re not in Dubai anymore, and you never were because you could just be in Dubuque, Iowa instead. It’s exactly the same.
I think that’s what “like” does for starters. I could get excited about this and really launch on the thing but that’s my misgiving. When we’re in school and this stuff starts coming up, one of the things I try to point people’s attention to is “you didn’t come here to exercise what you already know how to do. Just tell me you didn’t”.
People happily acknowledge that no, indeed, they didn’t come here to be habitually themselves. Okay, then the cost of being otherwise is in your speech (see pages 235-241 in Come of Age). If you don’t speak otherwise, you cannot think otherwise. That is a stone in the shoe because it sounds absolutely counterintuitive.
We really do imagine that our thinking leads our speech, but nothing could be further from the truth. All the habits of your speech guide your thinking, guide your perception, guide your hypotheses. All of them do. If you really want to make a revolution in this world, one of the ways to begin is to hold your speech to a degree of sustained discipline whereby the intricacies and the realities of the world begin to show up in how you formulate sentences so that your language is onomatopoeia, the way it once was many eons ago.
I think we can do this even with a kind of ornate syntax the contemporary language gives us. I’m not talking about grunting here. I’m not talking about making a sound that sounds like a sound “in the wild.” I’m saying that the wild has a syntax and can easily be understood as having its languages which are stories.
The degree to which you start saying “like” and “as” are the degree to which you’re not longer trusting the story you’re trying to tell, and you’re trying to compare it to a story that everybody “already knows” and fit it into that. That’s the mainstream thing I was telling you about earlier.
Tad: If we turn tourism into a verb, ‘touristing’ or something of that mind of wanting to turn the places we find, or the teachers we find, or whatever it is we come across into something more familiar, until it’s more and more familiar.
Stephen: Sorry Tad, until they become another thing that we know. There’s a reason for it. We don’t just do it because we don’t know what else to do. The reason that the unknown is constantly pressed into a mold that looks more and more familiar is because it’s unnerving to not know, as a “grownup”, to proceed, isn’t it?
Or worse than unnerving, it’s humiliating and it’s innervating. Nobody bargains for that. Revolutions are made this way. They deeply and truly are made this way, but I interrupted your question. Sorry.
Tad: I think I may actually go in a different direction due to time, because this is such a rich topic that we could go on for a long time. I heard one person describe the Orphan Wisdom School – I’m always curious when people go to describe it, how they say it. He said, “It’s something about learning to be a more cultured human,” and that resonated with my experience at the school. We seem to have so little culture in this dominant civilization of North America. I’m curious about your understanding of what is culture, and what is the role of elders or eldering in the fashioning of culture?
Stephen: I wouldn’t use the characterization fashioning of culture largely because of that unchanged mind thing that we began with. If you have an idea of what culture should be and you set about creating it, which are basically what intentionally communities set out to do, what you have, what you will end up with is an expression of the unchanged part of the change you were seeking.
In other words, you will inadvertently create the thing that you were fleeing because by virtue of fleeing it, it remains preserved. You see? There’s the dilemma in a nutshell. You cannot flee what you’ve learned. You have to work it. You won’t leave it behind.
So then, rather than imagining culture as something that we fashion and take apparently some considerable pride and credit for doing, we could imagine as I’ve tried to do, that culture is an inadvertent consequence of a certain number of people proceeding in a kind of simpatico fashion when they’re held to a certain kind of standard of fundamental responsiveness or responsibility, which is actually what the word means whereby the understand that their wellbeing is derived from the wellbeing of the world.
We are on the receiving end of every good intent and every noble action that we undertake. We’re on the receiving end of it. This breeds in you a capacity for a kind of radical humility that pretty much takes care of your humiliation. This is the dilemma with learning in a place that’s hopelessly addicted to competence is that most learning is humiliation or seems to require humiliation, but it doesn’t.
“To a cultured person, learning requires humility.”
To a cultured person, learning requires humility. It requires simply ‘not knowing that’. It’s not a bad way to have a school. If I have enough time, maybe I’ll try to make a school that’s based on that idea. I think I’ve done that actually. I would say to you that culture you could understand to be born fundamentally of a grieved people’s willingness to engage their grief and recognize that the limits imposed upon them by their biology, their anatomy, and their imagination, and their home place, that all of these limits are not there to be thwarted by ever cresting levels of accomplishment.
Every one of these limits have been granted to us in order to find our capacity for a culturedness within. In other words, the real midwives of culture are limits, frailties, and failures. The real odious alternative to that is a limitless, growth addicted, competence addled, be all you can be, and if you can, you should.
Limits are there to be thwarted, and limits are only in your imagination, and so on. This is idolatry. It’s idolatry of the imagination by the imagination. Culture is an antidote to idolatry. It’s a willingness to be limited so that the world can continue, whether our iteration of what we’ve come up with continues or not.
In other words, cultured people are cultured as a consequence of being citizens of a particular place and time, and civilized people – if I could use the distinction – are people who are on the road towards being civilized. They, of course, never get there but they’re ever greater arcs of capacity and willingness to leave the path behind, and learn from “our mistakes.”
There’s no learning from mistakes in civilization. Civilization’s job is to not make mistakes. If it does, it isolates the particular evildoers, leaves them behind or exorcises them and carries on. This is why the egregious examples in human history are so useful to civilizations because we can locate the darkness in us in particular places and times, historical individuals and so on.
If we’re not “like them,” then we are free from whatever bedeviled them. Then sometimes you do that to whole races of people, don’t you? Or whole city states of people and ethnic cleansing becomes an inevitable consequence, and before you know it, you have entire non-races of people, “white folks,” which is not a race of course.
Their young are looking desperately to find a kind of racial homeland and racial purity to offset their sense of being nobody, from nothing worth being from. They actually invent a background, invent a racial identity which is of course what we’re in the throes of now.
I’ll never forget being at a small island in the Gulf Islands off Western Canada, and an alternative community in every sense of the term. I was with maybe two dozen of the island’s young folks from about 14 to about 17. I was talking about ancestry and elderhood, so on like this.
Two aching comments will never leave my memory. One was a young girl said, “I’m beginning to see how initiation is so important. I’ve read about it but I had no idea how important it was. It makes me so sad to learn how important it is.”
I said, “Why is that?” She said, “Because it will never happen for me.” She was 14. She had it figured out, sadly. The other thing was actually more mournful but with less grief in it. It went like this.
A young guy said, “Oh, I don’t worry about this ancestry thing. I just make my own ancestry.” He was very flippant about it. Apparently ancestors, there’s an aisle in Wal-Mart where you can go shop for them. Of course that’s what a lot of comparative religion classes prompt us to, and comparative literature class, doesn’t it, who you identify with, all of that.
“Oh, I don’t worry about this ancestry thing. I just make my own ancestry.”
Literature of the oppressed, who do you identify with, and before you know it, you’re cherry-picking again. Nobody wants – I shouldn’t say nobody – there’s an awful lot of people on the move, adrift, trying to be from somewhere, and their option is to be from anywhere except where they’re from.
You could say culture is an antidote to that kind of aimlessness, by being willing to be from a particular somewhere and forgo all the other hypothetical possibilities of being from anywhere.
Tad: I find myself baffled by how it can be that there are so many young people these days that are starving for the sustenance that can only come from older people or this elder function in action, and yet so resistant to eating it when it appears, and I guess a lot of older people too. I suppose my final question is when this elder function appears in our midst, what might we do in response to its arrival? What might hospitality of that function look like because there’s such inhospitable environment right now to it, even though it’s so important?
Stephen: Stop trying to eat it. Okay, enquire after its appetite instead. Stop trying to consume it. Stop trying to have it. Get it inside yourself. Be it. Improve on it. Take it in. Turn it to take-aways. Digest it.
You see, it’s the same language for learning that’s used so often. Our understanding of learning basically is consumption but there’s no learning in consumption because it’s all gone. I’ll leave you with this story. You’ve probably heard me tell some version of it. This is the short version of it.
I’m appearing at an event called a prayer festival. We’re in the back room. I’m sitting beside a Tibetan priest or monk. He was in his robes and so on. He’s going to lead the Tibetan prayers I suppose, and God only knew what I was supposed to lead. I was sitting beside him, and in the vain attempt to make small talk, not knowing even if we had a language we could speak together because I don’t have much Tibetan at all.
He turned to me and said, “Why do you teach?” That’s what he asked me. That was his opening gambit, “Why do you teach?” I said to him, “Why do you ask?” He said, “They eat teachers here,” meaning North America.
My answer to him was, “That’s why I teach.” It was a devastating encounter for us both I think at some level. If you can picture a Tibetan monk being devastated, it’s not an easy picture to conjure but I was there, and I promise you, it was there too.
“They eat teachers here,”
He didn’t have a lot of equanimity that his years of training granted him at a moment like that. He was genuinely distressed at the extraordinary willingness of Western people claiming to want to learn things from elders, to trying to be elders instead, fast track everything, inhale everything, and mainline everything.
As far as I can tell, elderhood, to the degree it becomes sexy, and it may never but I think it will become a sexy beast shortly after death is removed from the front pages. It may be geezerdom instea; the new sexy thing. Somewhere in there, I think what will happen, and it will go into another degree of eclipse is that elderhood will be the next thing to inhale like ayahuasca.
It will be the next thing to do eco-tourism trips to. What am I saying? Of course it’s already in the works, right? I’ll go out in a limb here and I’ll close off by saying something like this. I was in a room full of people the other night in Toronto.
Maybe I went too far, but I said something like, “You know, there’s one guaranteed way to get a room full of white folks to use the word elder, and that’s to put someone who is older and not white up in front of them.” That’s how but you try to get a room full of white folks to use the word elder when there’s only white folks in the room, and you’re going uphill.
There’s a lot to be observed from that. I don’t say that out of any particular grievance. I’m saying that because the unwillingness to confer that word upon anyone but an exotic outsider is part of the poverty. That is not a solution.
There is a lot of shame in that, and trafficking and shame as well, and a lot of extolling the exotic and idolizing and fetishizing it, and all the rest that’s kind of obvious. The sad sort of scorpion’s tale of the thing is that you will, at least engender, another two generations of elder free existence while you hold up somebody from another continent as your template.
After all, elders are specific to times and places. There’s no generic identity to my mind. There can’t be. You can’t fetishize it. You can’t standardize it. If a time changes subtlely, then the function of elderhood changes as subtlely because it’s a servant.
“Seeing that, you can see the function of the elder in a living community. The elder is the amanuensis of the unseen, its onomato-poeia. The eclipse of early family allegiance, the concentrated frailties, the utter extinction of potential, and the wisdom that can ensue from that—in this we have elderhood, and elderhood when it is honoured in the midst of a living culture and employed in its ceremonial, political, and economic life is that culture taking dictation from the unseen, from the Great Beyond. Elders do not take their guidance from their Ancestors and their Gods nearly as much as they in their tempered, archaic, implacable ways are the mutterings of the Old Ones that the rest of us, with respect and a learned ear, get to overhear. Not the weavers, no— they are the weaving.” – excerpt from Come of Age
It’s proper that you can’t generalize. You can’t identify a particular people or a particular person and say, “That’s what that is.” The closest you can come is to say “for awhile, our times granted us that”. I certainly have understood Leonard Cohen for example in exactly those terms. I still find it not that easy to walk around with him not breathing the same air as me but, for awhile, I did, and for awhile, he was something, man.
Tad: Stephen, thank you so much for your time. I know you’re hitting the road tomorrow off to B.C., and in the blog post that accompanies this, I’ll be putting all the info about the tour that’s coming up, the Nights of Grief and Mystery Tour, and hopefully see many people there. Thank you for your time and hopefully we’ll see you down there sometime.
Stephen: Amen, thank you for your thoughtful questions. You made me work, the kind of work I appreciate. Thank you.
Tad: You’re welcome, take care.
Stephen: Okay, you too.
2018 Nights of Grief & Mystery Tour – North America
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Deacon, Guelph, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, SSI, Duncan, Victoria, Seattle, Portland, Tucson, Nevada City, Mill Valley, Los Angeles, Boulder, Ithaca, New York , Turners Falls, Ypsilanti, Minneapolis, Ottawa, Toronto
For more information on Stephen’s upcoming tour with Gregory Hoskins and band click the poster below…