Way, Way Grander Than Myself

Thoughts on life’s impermanence and leaving an impact

Feb 18, 2023

Spirituality Life Reflections Perspective Time
lit white candle in a room

Photo by Diego Lozano

It was my first shiva gathering. Thursday night, 9 pm my time, on Zoom. I had no idea what to expect. A traditional ritual of Judaism, it is a mourning period for close relatives and friends where they come by and bring food, comfort the mourner, discuss the loss, and share memories. We have a very similar custom in my Assyrian culture so I was familiar with the concept, but had never attended one online, didn’t know any of the other guests, and had not met the deceased person so had nothing to share. My coworker and dear friend is the one who invited me. She had recently lost her 96-year-old father and decided to open up this virtual space for friends and loved ones, who were too far away to come visit, to still have a place to come together. She said not to expect much ritual or a presentation since it wasn’t meant to be a memorial. So, at 8:59 pm, I logged on and turned on my camera.

There were about 15 others who joined; some had met my friend’s father and some had not. I was the youngest one there. I asked my friend how she was doing but then mostly remained on mute, preferring to listen. I was almost immediately struck by how much humor accompanied the gathering, and very little open grief or sadness. This surprised me and comforted me at the same time. It’s not something I witnessed at our own gatherings.

My friend shared a few photos of her father and many memories. She spoke of his merchant marine days and his thespian days. How he took her to her first folk dancing class, something she still does to this day. Attendees chimed in with their own memories and then their thoughts on aging, afterlife, caretaking. Somebody mentioned The Tibetan Book of the Dead and I made a mental note to look it up later. Someone else made a comparison about how someone at that age passing is like the world losing an encyclopedia, a vault containing so much wisdom and experience. How true is that? I loved this thought. The night ended with my friend playing a video reciting a prayer in Aramaic. The whole hour was enveloped in a sweet reciprocity of emotion and had a serene, solacing quality about it.

But it was something my friend’s brother, who was also part of the shiva, said about his father halfway through that made me emotional in a way I didn’t anticipate at all. He said his father lived a life in which he was “generally happy.” And I immediately thought of my own father, for whom that was not the case. My heart ached at the image of that future gathering and what would be said. Depression is not a word we passed around in my family or culture growing up; it still isn’t. Yet its been a somber cloud hanging over his head for most of his adult life. And by default, over his wife’s and kids’ lives. But that is a post for another day.

Hearing about how this man was remembered and what he was remembered for made me think about my own mortality and how I want to be remembered. What I hope people say about me when I’m gone. We all need these shiva moments of reflection every now and then. Times when we are invited to contemplate our life’s impermanence and what we long to do with our “one wild and precious life.”

These moments spent pondering themes around dying can potentially bring us back to life and invigorate in us a new eagerness for living.

I do not presume to know anything about grief. I know I have been blessed not to have experienced it up to this point. But I do know that I don’t want to waste my life with the trivial absurdities that we can often get sucked into. I want to live a life worth gathering around for to talk about when I pass. One in which I made an inkling of a difference. One in which I lived for something way, way grander than myself. And above all, one in which I surrendered to the will of God and heard Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23a).

Life can feel way too short and never-ending depending on our state of mind. But it seems God designed it to be just long enough — if we are healthy and fortunate to live past our golden years — to be able to leave footprints that can have an astounding positive effect on the world. Actually, come to think of it, we don’t even have to live long to make an impact. Take Jane “Nightbirde” Marczewski, or Chadwick Boseman, Tupac Shakur, or Selena. Each of these individuals left their unique mark in their respective genres. And they didn’t need to become centenarians to do that.

What mark do you want to leave? How do you want to be remembered?  

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.

~Albert Einstein