Happy Memorial Day?

The following column is from May 25, 2015. I’ll say I’m a tad more optimistic about our country than the tone implies (then and now), but the overall question remains. Happy Memorial Day to you and yours.

On Monday we celebrate Memorial Day. Or at least, we commemorate it. Many of us have difficulty using the word “celebrate” for such a solemn occasion.

There are two holidays that I often have difficulty with the salutation of “happy”. They are Memorial Day and Easter.

Easter is fairly easily reconciled. Good Friday is among the darkest remembrances for those who consider ourselves Christians. Easter, however, does not represent the death of our savior but rather his triumph over it. When understood in its proper context, there can be little more that is indeed happy.

Memorial Day is a bit more complex and difficult to reconcile in such a manner. It is not Veterans Day – a day we thank those who serve and have served their country in our armed forces. Rather, it is a day we set aside for a remembrance of those who served and gave the ultimate sacrifice.

There’s little to be happy about in that. I’ll skip ahead a bit and tell you that I won’t have an answer for you by the end of this column. If anything the takeaway is that I’m going to work through this as if we’re talking it out together.

If this to be a holiday that is to be celebrated, there has to be more to it than the acts of commemoration and remembrance. They are necessary to keep any holiday from becoming more than an excuse for mattress sales and three-day weekends. If you’ve attended a Memorial Day ceremony you’ll understand that you don’t leave by high fiving the folks next to you and dancing on the way out.

They are essentially funerals for people that most of us haven’t met. They are for people who died having not met us. They are to honor those who gave their life so that the idea of “us” could mean more than their life itself.

So…how do we move from that to a day of celebration?

We can celebrate the freedom that these men and women died to protect. But then we would have to ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can through our peaceful political processes to ensure that these freedoms remain unfettered.

We can celebrate that we’re a country of self-governance. But then we would have to recognize how few still participate in the process. We would have to realize how many fewer even still are willing to have a meaningful conversation with those who do not agree with us. That fewer still will engage in a town square instead of public political meetings filled with those that provide an echo chamber rather than a spirited debate.

If these words sound pessimistic I apologize. I am at my heart a realist.

When I compare the holidays of Easter and Memorial Day, I can take solace in the message of “Happy Easter”. The spirit of that holiday, after all, is that all of my sins can be forgiven, even when I have to account for them to my God face to face.

But for this holiday we call Memorial Day, I do not look fondly on the eventual opportunity to explain to those who gave their lives for our country what it is we as a citizenry do to demonstrate the value of their sacrifice.

I don’t want to tell them about parades, and I don’t want to tell them that a wreath was laid in their honor.

I’d rather tell them that the people that they left behind in their stead understood the responsibilities left to them. That we knew government by the people required the active participation of the people. That the country belonged to all those who call themselves Americans, not just the ones who temporarily held the beliefs of the majority political party. That we still believed that America was worth our time, our energy, and our focus. Even when that required interaction with those whom with we disagree.

If I knew I could tell them that, then I could say “Happy Memorial Day” indeed. It remains my hope as a bit of an optimist that one day I can.

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Will Durant
Will Durant

Just as “I do not look fondly on the eventual opportunity to explain to those who gave their lives” for the good of a political party, a corporation, or another country. Asking for the ultimate sacrifice should only be done when it is for the preservation of our country and our freedoms, not the whims of tyrants and oligarchs.