Love, Grief, and Hope: Emotional responses to death and dying in the UK
Madeleine Pennington and Nathan Mladin’s report examining emotional responses to death and dying in the UK. 27/11/2023
Elizabeth Oldfield reflects on the themes and guests from the eighth series of The Sacred. 15/11/2023
Hello, and welcome to The Sacred. My name is Elizabeth Oldfield, and this is a podcast about our deepest things, our metaphysical longings and the deep principles that drive the people who are shaping our common life. If this is your very first Sacred episode, may I recommend rewinding a little bit. At the end of every series, we listen back and look back at the guests that we’ve had, and try and approach it with curiosity for what’s going on as a whole. And I think if you’ve listened to none of this series, this episode might not be the best place to start. If you have, you’ll know we’ve had a real range of guests as we are always trying to do. But what’s notable about this series, looking back is how clustered they were. Honestly, we usually try and spread out our guests, people from different perspectives, different kinds of spiritual or metaphysical positions, people from different professions. We do the thing that you’re supposed to do a good dinner party, right, just like break up the couples, spread people out, help your palate be continually be being stimulated by variety. We weren’t able to do that this series, because it was just one of those times where it was complete scheduling carnage. And I want to give much honour to our producer, Dan, for handling that. And I know you’re supposed to look like this sort of serene swan from the outside, hiding all of that happening in the background. But again, and again, I think a policy of acknowledging that we’re all finding our way through things like this is a good one. So what that scheduling carnage meant, is that we ended up with a series with clusters in it. In the middle, we had three journalists. And at the end, we had these two people working in the kind of psychological, psychiatric, philosophical space. And I think what that unintended positioning did is it really showed me how much nonsense it is to think that we can break people into types anyway. That the idea that well, we shouldn’t have two people who are journalists next to each other because there’ll be too similar. Or we shouldn’t have two writers of colour next to each other because there’ll be too similar and the listeners might get bored, is another layer of this thing that we’re trying to attack, which is our tendency to put people in boxes and label them and think that because they have one characteristic in common, they have their job in common or you know, whatever is that their gender in common, that they are the same type of person. And it has been very salutary to me to be forced to listen to people who I might have come at thinking were the same type of person next to each other and realise again, how much nonsense that is.
And it really brought out what I think is the overarching theme of this series, which is something that Cole Arthur Riley said in the very first episode, she called it unapologetic particularity. I asked this question which felt quite risky, which was “how do I avoid white gazing you?” And she said, “unapologetic particularity”. I’ve come back to it. And I sort of talked to myself about it as rigorous particularity. Treating each person in front of me as the unique, beautiful, in my language, kind of reflection of the Divine that they are, and coming at them with curiosity. Not assuming that I know what they’re going to think, what they’re going to feel, what they’re going to say to me, what kind of person they are, because I’ve got some signifiers, some cognitive shortcuts that I’m coming to the conversation with. So that has been, again, challenging for me.
One of the other themes coming out of this series, I think, was formation. And it’s something that I’m very interested in. I write about a lot. What are the kinds of people we’re becoming? Not just: what are we achieving? And what are we acquiring? But in my language: what kind of soul are we growing? You know, what kind of character are we growing? I want to spend my life thinking about becoming the kind of person who, who I set out to be, you know, at the beginning, that when someone stands up and says something about me, at my funeral, I want those to be the things that matter to me. What David Brooks calls eulogy virtues, rather than resume virtues. And it really came through in so many of the interviews how this formation particularly in our childhoods really can shape our whole lives for good, or for ill. You know, you see it in really positive ways, in the way that Iain McGilchrist’s school created quite a safe environment for his explorations, both intellectual and artistic. That formed him into a position of epistemic humility of doubting how much he knew, of always saying, what’s the other side of this story? What is it that I don’t know? We saw it in Tom’s childhood, you know, growing up in Nigeria. It’s really stuck with me, this thing that he said that when you grow up as a black man, in a country where almost everyone is black, your blackness is not a salient feature of your identity. It’s not something that you have central in your understanding of yourself. And that’s so formative for him now, I think, wanting to question or be cautious about how much his blackness is the salient part of his identity now, living in the UK. And how other people talk about that, and how he feels about what people assume about him as a black man. And I think you can see it in the ways that some of the guests have had to unpick, you know, that John Vervaeke, the philosopher and psychologist we spoke to right at the end, grew up in a very fundamentalist religious community and that fear, that fear of hell, that fear of the rapture, that fear of the judgement of God, as he says, were very traumatic and something that he’s had to unpick through a lot of therapy and exploring different religious practices, and the input of philosophy in his life. And then Tea Uglow, who grew up in a culture in which what she would now describe as her transness was not welcomed, was not understood, was not something that was even close to being something that she could talk about in public. And her autism, and various other things that she struggled with. How much we can carry those formative years forward with us, the people that we’re with, the stories that are spoken over us. Just the moral atmosphere of what is allowed and what isn’t allowed. How much love, how much honesty, how much space is there for us as we’re growing up? And I think, whether we’re parents or not, paying really deep attention as we meet people, to what might have formed them, and thinking about: what are we contributing to the formative moral atmosphere for those around us? In our workplaces, in our friendships in our neighbourhoods. What are we contributing to the air that will shape other people? And how are we letting ourselves be formed by the cultural and moral atmosphere around us?
Another thing I’ve been thinking a lot about this series is the reflections that we do at the end of each episode – and this reflection, actually – and it’s really crystallised for me why we do them. And it was partly a pragmatic decision about what makes a good podcast, I went on a podcast called Nomad. I was interviewed on there, and two or three of the hosts talked afterwards about the interview that I’ve done. And it was sort of excruciating, listening to it back, but also incredibly moving. I felt very attended to. I felt very hurt. I felt like they’d gifted me a form of attention, not just in the interview, but in reflecting on what I’d said afterwards. That helped me understand things about myself that I had not noticed. In particular, they said, “She says ‘I don’t know’ a lot.” And by that I think they meant they would asked me a question, and if I didn’t know the answer, I wouldn’t try and make one up; I would say, “I don’t know.” And I hadn’t realised I do that, but it brought from unconscious to conscious my commitment to not BS–ing, to not claiming to know things I don’t know, to not trying to impress people by inventing an opinion on the spot, frankly, or copying the opinion of someone I respect. But having quite a large area of life where I’m prepared to say, “I don’t know.” So that experience made me think, maybe that’s something that we can give our guests. Not just the attention to listen to them during the interview, but the attention to go back and reflect on what they’ve said. It’s also kind of related to my some of my spiritual practices around attention and formation. This sense that in a very fast information environment, if I’m not careful, the things I’m experienced, the things that you are listening to as podcast listeners, will just slide past our consciousnesses. Particularly if you’re listening to on doubles time. Someone might say something really quite profound, and it’ll go in one ear, out the other, and we’ll have no time to actually change us. To actually open up space in our hearts. To actually deepen our understanding or empathy or our curiosity. And what I take from kind of monastic traditions and the discipleship traditions of my faith, is that there’s no formation without repetition. There’s no formation without intentional attention to what we want to move from the short–term memory to the long–term heart–forming shape. And so we do these reflections for both those reasons. And as you can imagine, they feel quite risky. They feel risky, because I’m trying to be honest. That’s one of my deep values that I’m trying not to say things I don’t mean. But in being honest about my experiences with each guest, there’s quite a present danger that I might hurt their feelings. Or I might alienate some of you, listeners, because the point of the podcast… Well, it has these kind of twin aims. One is to normalise talking about deep things, reflecting on matters of character, or virtue, or spirituality, or the soul, or these deep, meaningful “What is life about?” questions. And also to force us into a posture of curiosity about people not the same as us. All of which means, for a significant proportion of my guests, I’m coming to them feeling that thing that we all feel, which is “You are not someone like me.” Psychologists call it “homophily”: this very, very deep, very hardwired universal tendency to prefer people who are like us, who we think like us. And those two things, I think, are really key. People who we assume will be warm to us, and people who remind us of ourselves. It’s very narcissistic, when you think about it.
And again, and again, I am deliberately having conversations with people who are not like me, and that on a range of things. And there’s very few that I go into feeling actively hostile to, because those people I would not invite because I don’t feel in the right soul space, to have a conversation with them where I’m going to honour them. But there are people, as you know if you’ve listened to any of the reflections, which I go into the interview thinking, “I don’t know if I’m going to find it very easy to connect with you.” And even saying that in a reflection, despite the fact that almost always I have through the conversation changed my mind and got to a different place, feels risky. Because that’s a hard thing to hear. It’s a hard thing for anyone to hear, that someone felt mildly nervous about talking to them, or didn’t know if they would connect with them, or wasn’t just like flat out full of enthusiasm to interview them. If you listen to a lot of podcasts (and I won’t name names, and some of them I love you), every guest is the person that they’re most excited to talk to of all time. Every guest is their favourite person. Every guest, they are a huge fan of. I can’t do that because it is not true. So, the guest hearing even the fact that I might have started off nervous is not something we do in public. And it’s risky. And I worry about hurting people’s feelings and alienating them. And I have stepped on a few guests’ feelings in those reflections, and that’s been really difficult to navigate. But again, and again, the feedback comes that that attempt to be honest, is one of your favourite parts of the podcast. And we had a lovely thing in this series, in that Tea Uglow shared on one of her social media platforms how much she’d enjoy coming on, and that hearing that reflection of our conversation was her favourite part. And the fact that she felt honoured by it, and seen by it, and attended to by it, just gave this huge sigh of relief. The other reason it’s risky is that this deeply wired thing in us means that – you may have noticed this – if I admit that I wasn’t feeling very enthusiastic about interviewing a particular guest, and that is the exact guest that you were feeling most enthusiastic about listening to, you might just feel a little colder towards me. You might feel a bit distanced and mildly annoyed, even like a tiny bit insulted, as if I’ve said something directly about you. And that is very normal. And it happens to me too. Anytime someone says something even vaguely negative, or cautious, or even neutral about the kind of person that we feel aligned to, it triggers a little bit of fight–or–flight. It tips us into that defensiveness of homophily, of the people–like–me syndrome. So I want to say: please stay with me. If I didn’t feel enthusiastic about a guest that you love, it doesn’t mean that I don’t respect, or feel curious, or indeed feel a huge amount of affection for you or that group. We have this fallacy, I think, in public life that difference equals disagreement or even disdain. And part of this project is saying, “No. Difference can be powerfully good, and beautiful, and energising, and maybe even a given and glorious part of Creation.”
I’m just going to finish with a couple of words on the thing that will be on many of our minds, which is the situation in Israel and in Gaza. And, as I’ve said, I’m not going to pretend to you that I have detailed geopolitical insight here, or a new analysis of the roots of this most painful, most intractable conflict. But I would like to suggest that this project of noticing our tribalisms, noticing our homophily, trying to stay open–hearted to people not like us, is related. That all of these moments where we break relationship, where we withdraw or we attack – what I would call sin. I think Jesus is very anti–tribalist in his positioning, he is very quick to cross boundaries and to be seen with the outsider, and to be seen with people that other people despise or are scared of. And this project of noticing that in ourselves is one of the things that we can do in times like these if we do not have levers to pull towards peace and reconciliation. And I wanted to point you to an article I helped write for an organisation called Larger Us who I also work with a little bit, which is, what does it mean to take some of these practices and some of these postures seriously in times like these? How to notice our fight–or–flight? How to notice when we are reacting in ways that strengthen our people–like–me tendencies, and what might it mean to steady ourselves and stay open, and stay listening, even as we grieve and rage.
This has been the series reflection for The Sacred podcast. My name is Elizabeth Oldfield. I’ve really enjoyed having you with us for this series, and we look forward to speaking to you in the new year.
Elizabeth is host of The Sacred podcast. She was Theos’ Director from August 2011 – July 2021. She appears regularly in the media, including BBC One, Sky News, and the World Service, and writing in The Financial Times.
Posted 15 November 2023
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.