In Faculty Voices, In Memoriam, News & Announcements

In Memoriam

Remembering Walter Odajnyk

Chris Downing, Ph.D. | Core Faculty, Pacifica Graduate Institute | originally posted 26 July 2013
Chris Downing offered these comments about Walter at Pacifica Graduate Institute’s 2013 graduation ceremonies.
A month ago before River and I left for a long-awaited trip to Europe I put together a version of what I might say at this year’s Myth Program graduation ceremony.

But when on Thursday morning as the Myth faculty were assembling for our annual spring retreat and Steve Aizenstat appeared to tell us that Walter Odajnyk had died the previous evening, I of course immediately realized that I’d have to put those notes aside – without clearly knowing what it would be right to say instead.

I knew that I’d want somehow to speak in a way that would pay tribute to Walter, to his life and its ending, but of course knew that it was still true that the real focus of today’s ceremony was celebrating YOU, our graduates.

Then suddenly I recognized the obvious – I’m a slow learner sometimes – that there was no real tension – that the common theme, the obvious theme, was Completion, completions.

As in the last several days I began to reflect on this theme, as I went about my day – making my bed, walking on the beach, preparing a meal- a phrase kept returning.

“It’s not over when it’s over.”

A life isn’t over when someone dies – he lives on in us, in our grief, in our memories — indeed in some ways death actually seems to initiate a long process of beginning to appreciate all that a person meant and means to us – in a way we don’t tend to do while they are still alive.

I know for sure that in these few days I’ve not yet had time to really even begin to let in the loss, to really get that Walter isn’t going to be around anymore – much less to recognize all the blessings knowing him has brought into my life.

And I believe that can’t help but also be true of your education here, your experience of Pacifica – that you can’t possibly know now how you’ll understand your time at Pacifica even a year from now, much less ten years from now.

Though perhaps as you’ve thought toward today you have begun to articulate to yourself how you understand this time now – what you most value, what most regret, what you most hope to remember, what you most look forward to bringing into the world.

I want to assure you that these years will be part of you always – and that what is most important about them will shift, change and transform, in the years ahead.

I know that as I began putting this little talk together I found myself wishing that it were Walter himself who was standing here today, sending you forth with his blessing.

I’ve tried to imagine what he might have said.

I think Walter’s death has made us all more aware of just how much we loved him — and he us.

But more importantly perhaps it has made me – and perhaps you as well – more aware than before of how central love is to what makes the experience of studying at Pacifica (or indeed of teaching at Pacifica) so life-changing, so transformative.

Walter was always reminding us faculty that our students come here, to Pacifica – rather than elsewhere – not primarily for how a degree might provide professional credentials — not even for the content focused-on in our courses– the enhanced understanding of Greek myth or Hinduism, fairytales or dreams, ritual or literature – though of course those are all important.

But that what really brings most of you here is a longing for a deepened connection to soul, for a deepening of self – which, as he knew so well, really means deepening our capacity to receive and give love.

As I first began thinking of what I might say today I briefly considered talking about Freud’s beautiful little essay, “On Transcience” – an essay River and I read aloud to each other each year on May 6, Freud’s birthday. I love how beautifully Freud writes in that essay how transcience, finitude, death can heighten our appreciation of all that we find most beautiful, most worthy of being cherished.

But Freud is my teacher, not Walter’s.

Walter’s own most important teacher was, Carl Jung.

So then I remembered how somewhere toward the end of Memories, Dreams, Reflections — written as he was consciously facing his own imminent death — Jung wrote about the centrality of what he called cosmogonic — that is, world-creating — love. He even used the Greek name, Eros.

But my own copy of this book was back home on Orcas, so I borrowed Patrick’s copy and found the vaguely remembered line — found that what Jung had written was — “We are in the deepest sense the victims and instruments of cosmogonic love.”

Words I am sure Walter would have subscribed to.

But then I kept reading and found these even more beautiful and more appropriate words – words I believe any of us would like to imagine we might be able to say of our selves:

I am satisfied with the course my life has taken. It has been bountiful and has given me a great deal. How could I ever have expected so much? Nothing but unexpected things kept happening to me. Much might have been different if I myself had been different. But it all was as it had to be; for it all came about because I am as I am.

I was born and exist and it seems to me that I have been carried along. I exist on the foundation of something I do not know. In spite of all uncertainties I feel a solidity underlying all existence and a continuity in my mode of being.

The world into which we are born is brutal and cruel, and at the same time of divine beauty.

To which I can only say YES. Brutal and cruel – and beautiful. To be able to hold both truths at once is I think life’s greatest challenge – and, I believe, something that the myths of every culture try to find a way of communicating.

For it is never easy to hold both these truths at once.

And we so need one another to be able to do so.

So my final word to you, dear graduates, is – Go forth, knowing that, though this is a time of going forth, you do not do so alone.

We, your fellow students, your teachers, all those assembled here today to celebrate with you, go with you.

It’s not over when it’s over.

Scott Gregory  |  30 July 2013
When I was offered an opportunity to teach a Psychology of Dreams course at the community college, I asked Walter for advice. He told me to be honest, and to have the courage to say “I don’t know.” Walter, I use your advice every day. Thank you.

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