I can’t recall a Memorial Day when I’ve felt more concerned about the future of my country.
I struggle to remember a time when I felt the nation was as divided as it seems today. The Civil War, sure, but I didn’t live through it, so I really can’t internalize that period in our history. The 1960s were terribly divisive, but even with the turmoil over Vietnam and civil rights, I don’t recall the sides completely refusing to accept a shared set of facts and realities, no matter how they used those facts to fit their separate narratives. Even a worldwide pandemic hasn’t closed the gap separating the extremes on the political spectrum today.
I worry what comes next, even as I read old books and surf new websites looking for insights, observations and comments to give me hope.
Memorial Day is a fitting time to reflect on our country, how many times it has succeeded, how much it has endured and what might lie ahead for a nation “conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” as Abraham Lincoln so famously said in a speech at the site of the battle of Gettysburg during one of the darkest periods in the history of these United States. We’ve come a long way from those dark times, and we’ve made strides toward that equality of which Lincoln spoke. We have far to go, however, and I can only hope the present division is but a temporary pause on our journey.
Memorial Day, the last Monday in May, is the American holiday that invites us to pause and honor the men and women who died while serving in the United States military. We used to call it Decoration Day. After the Civil War it was a time set aside to decorate the graves of those who died in that war. Now it is Memorial Day, but we still decorate graves and still we consider the dedication and sacrifice of those who died in military service.
Like many other Americans, I suppose, I too often take for granted the freedoms I enjoy and the bounty of my home land. A quote attributed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt says, “Those who have long enjoyed such privileges as we enjoy forget in time that men have died to win them.” The fact that I feel a sense of discomfort in writing that “men have died,” and “all men are created equal,” may be a sign that we have made at least some progress toward equality. I hope so.
During the turbulent ’60s, I sometimes thought how fragile our nation is, how its continued existence depends both on the willingness of young women and men to step up and defend it and on the willingness of the rest of us, disagree as weight, to step back from that one, final word or act that can’t be taken back.
Here’s a long passage attributed to President Ronald Reagan: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We did not pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected and handed on to them to do the same or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
There are those today, I’m sure, who would read Reagan’s words as support for their right to hit the bars or walk the streets unmasked during the pandemic. That can’t be all it means, can it? The majority, I hope, understand that freedom means little if separated from responsibility and we all share a responsibility to nurture our rights and privileges, not just for ourselves but for others. I have to believe that’s part of the cause for which so many fought and died.
Without action, words are cheap. Consider this comment attributed to former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm: “Ceremonies are important. But our gratitude has to be more than visits to the troops and once-a-year Memorial Ceremonies. We honor the dead best by treating the living well.”