The View From Here: Panakhyda reflections

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Volodymyr Kish.

I went to another Panakhyda this past week. As most of you know, a Panakhyda is a Ukrainian religious service commemorating the passing of an individual from this earthly world to a hopefully better hereafter.

These days, as I near the end of my seventh decade of life on this planet, going to a Panakhyda has become a frequent occurrence. Nonetheless, this one affected me more than the usual. Part of the reason for that was that the person being sent off into eternity was the same age as I am now. I had first met Lesia almost fifty years ago when we were in University. We shared many common and pleasant memories together from a time before life had worn us down with the responsibilities, challenges and often harsh lessons of reality. Back then, we were flush with youthful optimism, great hopes for the future and an innocence that had yet to be tested.

Subsequently, our lives diverged as we forged our individual destinies, though our paths did cross from time to time, resurrecting thoughts and memories of that earlier formative era of our common past. Years may go by and circumstances change, but nostalgia for a cherished past tends to embed certain reminiscences ever more firmly in our minds.

The other reason for being especially touched by this passing, was that Lesia was one of those rare individuals that “aged” well, and never lost that wonderful ability to connect with other people and bring happiness and joy to their lives. The tribulations of life tend to wear many people down, and as they age, it can make them resentful, bitter, jealous, despondent or angry. They can become a burden to those around them. Those individuals that can weather the stormy seas of life with equanimity and emerge as better folks with their optimism and spirit intact, are a gift to the world. Having such people as your friends is a true blessing.

My PhD daughter once related to me how she tended to categorize the people she came in contact with as being of one of two types. The first were those people whose presence and friendship energized you and lifted your spirits. The second type were those people who, when you interacted with them, perpetually tended to drain you of energy, and left you feeling down. Lesia was definitely a person of the first type. She will be missed.

To paraphrase a famous quote by the English poet John Donne, each person’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. As we go through life, we build a complicated structure of relationships that gives form and meaning to our existence. Contrary to most people’s beliefs, success in life and the true measure of wealth lies not in the accumulation of worldly goods, assets and money in the bank, but rather in the richness and depth of the relationships we form with other people. That is true wealth, and the only currency that counts, and in the end holds any meaning, is the spiritual currency of love.

When we lose people like Lesia from our lives, we are in one sense “diminished”, and yet we should not lose sight of the fact that there is a valuable legacy left behind. When we all eventually “shuffle off our mortal coils”, the one thing that remains from our presence on this earth are the memories we leave behind. Presumably, for those of us that believe in a continued existence of some form after we die, we also carry those memories with us into the afterlife.

The success or failure of our lives can only be assessed on the basis of those memories. When we go, do we leave the world a better place because of what we did when we were here? We are not all destined to do great things while we are alive, but every positive act of ours, no matter how small, contributes incrementally to making this world and the universe a richer and better place. Each increase in the world’s store of love, hope, beauty and kindness counts.

When I look back on my own life, I feel particularly blessed in that I have had the good fortune to have formed many nourishing relationships, to have gotten to know many wonderful people, and to have accumulated a vast store of enriching experiences and memories. As I face the concluding chapters of my own book of life, I am content that my life has not lacked in meaning, and that I have in my own small ways helped make this world a better place.