“The ultimate self-absorption of our age is the self-hatred of our age. The belief that nothing we can say or do can help but screw things up even worse.”
HERE IS A SECRET. Many of my peers dislike themselves. They suffer from various forms of despair and depression, often leading to prescription or self medication. This is what the dominant culture tells them: there is something wrong with you.
Or, my peers like themselves too much. They swim in glossy representations of themselves, convinced they are the destined for untold greatness. The dominant culture calls this “narcissism” and tells them: there is something wrong with you.
The urge to be nobody, to have no consequence whether you lived are died, and the lust to be somebody, to leave your footsteps on earth as testament to your existence. Both perspectives are inextricably bound, revolving around the unseeable truth: the Self remains in the center.
This false dichotomy is found within the narratives of the dominant culture: Are humans a cancer on the planet, a flawed accident that deserves to be extinguished? Or are we the pinnacle of evolution, buoyed by our technology and bound for the stars?
This is not an accident. In fact, this is the perspective of childhood.
As a child, you are necessarily the most important story there is. Everything and everyone is a reflection of you and therefore, potentially “mine.” Whether through trauma or neglect, this perspective can reverse, turning the judgement inward. Herein lies guilt, shame, depression, self-hatred. Herein lies psychology, where the problem is your maladjustment. The fashionable response in personal development and spiritual circles is often self-love. “You must love the self before you can love the world.”
The antidote to self-hatred is not self-love. It’s to love the world instead. It’s to love the world despite your brokenness.
“The relentless pursuit of self reliance and self improvement is rooted in our lost connection to common stories, homeland and ancestors that bind and unite us. The times now demand that we recognize the world’s suffering in our own.”
This is the debt I owe Stephen Jenkinson. He reawakened my ability to see the world, and the long caravan of forgetting that my peers and I are heir to. Those of us who grew up in the dominant culture are the children of Nowhere. Bless the parents that are doing the best they can (just as mine did) – but we have precious little guidance to make our way in a world that becomes more uncertain everyday, and are told in a thousand tiny ways that we are the problem.
What is the role of a human being? What is asked of us during this time of the anthropocene? My previous film collaboration with Stephen was called “The Meaning of Death”, which circled around learning to die as an individual. Collectively, we must now face the death of the dominant culture.
Stephen’s words are often difficult to decipher – not because he speaks with ancient eloquence, rather, it takes a learned skill to hear the multi-layered spiral of wisdom. Therefore, in addition to the short film above, I’ve included further outtakes from our conversations. If inspired, please share this work far and wide.
“How we see the culture down can be remarkably beautiful – just not the kind of beauty you wish for.”
“You have to understand that every culture worthy of the word culture has always practiced human-making, I think without exception. And there’s a lot of ceremonies and things that contribute to that making of humans, but why do they do that? Present tense I’m using, too. Why does it continue to happen?
Not because there’s anything wrong with anybody. That’s the macabre wisdom. The indigenous take on things is they don’t seem ever to resort to the Unified Field Theory of why things are as fucked as they are by saying, ‘Well humans, what are you gonna do?’ It’s a particularly modernist kind of self-hatred that is unrecognizable indigenously speaking.
It’s not like indigenous people are ‘good’ people and the rest of us are lost. They have the same dilemmas we have. They have found a way, an understanding of being human that includes the temporary amnesia around being one.
The indigenous take on it resorts to this: it’s in the nature of being human to forget how to be one on occasion, and to go earlier in your life, it’s in the nature of being human that nobody’s born that way, and so it has to be taught.
It means you need teachers and practitioners. And so, ceremonies are fundamentally designed to point this out to us, reminding us that this thing has been forgotten or set aside. And then you need a culture that proceeds as if the greatest gift you can give to kids at a certain age is give them the chance to be human, instead of assuming that by default they can’t be anything else.”
“Human beings are made. Who makes human beings? You could say well perhaps God makes human beings. Or you could say, the great God of our time is human beings make themselves. That’s where we worship, typically. But a culture that practices real initiation, you know what they say? Human beings have to make human beings.
Nobody else has really got the job description. I mean, deer make deer. But real deer, not deer who can’t figure out how to be a deer; they actually make real deer. Almost from the get go. But it doesn’t mean they don’t have to learn stuff. So initiation first and foremost is a human making thing. And how do you make humans? And the answer is: you’ve got to kill off their childhood.
Because why? Because the childhood doesn’t give way, that’s why. It’s a living thing. It’s not going to shuffle off this mortal coil because you’ve, quote, outgrown it. Nobody outgrows their childhood. It’s elastic beyond describing. Such that I have to regularly deal with 55 year old adolescents.
You have to kill it instead so that a human being can show up there instead.
Not when the kid’s seven. The kid’s supposed to be a child at seven, which means their self-absorption is total and complete, and that’s one of the ways they learn. Up until a certain point, it can’t be otherwise, and it shouldn’t be. After which time it becomes the most hazardous thing to this world, that self-absorption.
Many people say to me, yeah, yeah, I’ve been initiated man. I had a car accident. Do you think crazy shit happening, is that it? Come on. We agreed that it’s human beings that initiate you, it’s not, it’s not cars rolling off the highway. You know, that’s just called trauma. There’s a big difference. You being traumatized means you’re just fodder for the therapy system. It doesn’t mean you’ve outgrown anything. You know? If anything, that shit’s pretty seductive to drag you back into me, and me, and me.
Human beings are here to make sure that life lives, that the world somehow continues. Whether your personal life continues or not is not the bottom line of it. That’s an initiated understanding.
So humans are made in a place like this, and the making of human means we understand that we’re gonna lose track. The good news is we don’t all lost track at the same time, so there’ll be people there to, to welcome you in, and people there to remind you, and people there to show you what it’s like to be human.”
Elderhood is not a consequence of what a birth certificate says, otherwise we’d be awash in them, with more on the way. It is not a consequence of not having died yet, nor of enduring a life. It is not what will happen if you or I stick around long enough. That condition I would call ‘senior citizen’.
Seniors are a consequence of death not happening. Elders are a consequence of a lifetime lived in the presence of elders, with all the subtle training laying out a template for service instead of retirement. Elders are a consequence of a whole sequence – a fragile sequence- of things happening. This sequence has a soul, and this it seems is it: elders do not achieve their elderhood.
For all their labours of learning they must still await elderhood being conferred upon them by those who seek them out.
Elders are finally made by the willingness and the ability of everyone else to have elders in their midst, to have recourse to them. Consider then how unlikely elderhood is in a time which medicates, resists and barely tolerates age instead of venerating it, in a time when being self made is king and queen of all aspirations, in a time when senior citizens are competing for jobs and life partners and the attention of the marketplace with people half their age.
Elders aren’t self made. They can’t be. They don’t confer elderhood upon each other, for it isn’t theirs to confer. They serve the culture which has given them their lives, their elders, and their achievement as elders only flowers when they have some place to serve. That place is younger people.
“[Many people] have a secret suspicion that they’re nobody, therefore they don’t really have the capacity to reassure anybody else on that matter. Because where’s your ability to love come from? It comes from getting loved first. Where’s your ability to know someone come from? From getting known first. Where does your ability to grieve– which is fundamental to being a human being– where does that come from? From being on the receiving end of someone’s grief.
And what does that do? Does it instantly translate into those skills of love, and grieving? No. Does it mean you’re going to automatically feel like somebody? It doesn’t mean that. There’s a kind of intermediate step without which the whole thing is stillborn, and what’s that?
If you’re on the receiving end of that stuff long enough, what happens is, there’s this little bud that grows up from you being bombarded with somebody being certain that you’re loveable, no matter what you think.
And that little bud is a bud of worthiness.
That you didn’t do anything to conjure, or manufacture this. It’s not a meritocracy getting loved, getting grieved, getting understood and seen. It isn’t. It’s a consequence that you’ve got sane people around you. That’s what it is. But if you have this bud of worthiness that somehow, involuntarily starts to take up room and your take on yourself? The inevitable consequence is your ability to love somebody is born there.
It’s not literally born and getting loved, it’s born in the un-sought after affirmation that you’re worth the trouble. There’s something there that can be, and will be, loved. That will be seen. It’s not up for grabs, and if that buds out one time in your life, it’s pretty hard to put that down again. You have to violate yourself to proceed as if you’re insignificant after that.”
“Years ago I showed a film to a group of men who were newly bereaved about how Tibetans once – maybe still – cared for their dying and their dead. When the film ended, the long silence was finally broken when one of the men said, “I feel like I come from nowhere.”
And that seems to be what happens inside most of us when we see or hear of a people wholly at home where and how and who they are: we feel the shadowed hollow of our immigrant, refugee history, and our lack of ceremonial instinct and experience, or we try to fill it up by stealing something from those people who are miraculously still deeply, ancestrally, ceremonially alive.
Communities with endurance, purpose and commitment to future generations aren’t built on a footing of longing for such a community, or missing one. They are built on a willingness to learn and try and fail and learn some more about how real villages are a kind of cooking pot, the clay for which was taken from ancestral soil, and how that cooking pot hangs from a tripod of relation: how the villagers are with each other, how they are with the created world around them, how they are with the Unseen World.
The balm for feeling like you come from nowhere is to learn in a massive way about where you are from, and to do that with others.”
On the death of the dominant culture:
“When it comes to being sorrowful over how things are going, when it comes to being politically attenuated to how things are going, the word love doesn’t often show up.
But I’m pretty certain now that the willingness to see the death of what you love, and to be willing to continue to love it when it’s not going to last, that itself is an act of love. And if what I’m talking about is the culture that gave you your existence, your identity and so forth, then that’s what you do. That’s your last great act of love is to see it down.
See it properly interred, you know? Dig a good hole, you know. Not to get rid of anything, but that’s your job. I mean, where’d your life come from? This is not rats on a sinking ship I’m describing; real human beings will not abandon that which however faulty and misshapen, and perhaps an accident of nature – whatever this crazy life we’ve made for ourselves in this century is – real human beings will not leave it to its own devices.
Real human beings will sit there, even though they themselves might be beginning to grow hungry, and weary, and they will sit there knowing that’s the last gift you have. That’s the way I think to see it. It’s an act of love.”
Learn more about Stephen’s work at Orphan Wisdom.