The approach of Memorial Day 2018 set off a chain of free associations. It went something like this. “Am I to celebrate the heroes who sacrificed on behalf of all of us whom their sacrifices enriched? Or is it a poignant time to feel sorry for them?” Like so many things in life, it is a question of how you see their sacrifices. And how they see or saw them.
One of the great examples of the difference between these two options is being lived out before our eyes in the latest demonstration of courage on behalf of an ideal. It comes to us as a gift from Senator John McCain. Even at what we observe from a distance, I think it is beyond question that a man being challenged beyond what most of us would dare to imagine, would strongly advise us not to feel sorry for him.
The most optimistic notion, to borrow from a recent New York Times review of Senator McCain’s book Restless Wave, is the reviewer’s observation that the truth that underlies this patriot’s bedrock defense of his loyalty to our country is that “the country’s behavior should match its ideals.” Going on to consider the alternatives when the country seems not to do so, Jennifer Szalai, observes that the senator does not abandon his belief in American exceptionalism. He demonstrates that he is optimistic about that genius for greatness and how it holds even when his country’s behavior (or indeed his own, since he never denies his own human fallibility) falls short. She concludes that for McCain, “it’s simply a matter of getting the behavior to fall in line.” What I took as the underlying message is that while there is life, there is hope. But where did the life of this holiday begin?
Where do we look for the roots of this holiday when we celebrate those who have lived and died for their diverse beliefs in what makes our country great? And whether it is an occasion for sadness or for hope. I answered that inner uncertainty by saying, in the tone of a take-no-prisoners Nanny, “Come on now, this is no time for self-pity! Pull up your socks and think of how and why this day became a national holiday!”
If I was looking for a Founding Day as filled with courage and nobility as our first Fourth of July I confess I did not find it. The day I remember as “Decoration Day,” began its evolution not long after the tragically wrenching American Civil War and progressed through two successive wars that were to “end all wars,” but somehow didn’t.
In a moment of gallows humor my research revealed that in 1966, the federal government declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day. Waterloo—which had first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866—was chosen because it hosted an annual, community-wide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags. Simple, sincere and homespun, the origin of this hallowed day has as much to teach us as eloquent declarations and awe-inspiring visuals. From its roots in Waterloo, this day is one that leaves the forging of the dream to the not so many generations that have occurred in the relatively simple decades of the 19thand 20thCenturies.
By choosing the figure of a living human being as an iconic image for Memorial Day I let it be known, in the interest of full disclosure, that what I suggest we celebrate this Memorial Day are the winners. I define winners as those who bravely carry on with an unchanging commitment, whether that is what the world calls success or whether it calls for ultimate sacrifices.
Prisoners of War are, nonetheless, winners to me. Especially when they are brave enough to make mistakes, admit to those mistakes and begin anew, as often as it takes. Perhaps a vital element of heroism is the clearsighted acknowledgement that no one has to be wrong for you to be right. And as in the McCain example, a long commitment to a military heritage may inspire you, but it still leaves to you the challenge of deciding how and to what extent you must reinvent that tradition to fit the special challenges of your own times and circumstances.
For me, this approaching Memorial Day will begin with the laying of a wreath at the grave of legislator’s hopes held hostage by tribalism. With the simple belief enshrined at Waterloo, I will remain confident that there are winners to be uncovered, unwilling to leave the hallowed halls of our government with nothing more to look forward to than a future of spending long years collecting lifelong pensions that look all too much like the equivalent of unemployment insurance.
I come to honor our winners, from Gettysburg to Flanders fields to Arlington Cemetery, and beyond. Together with the living, they challenge us to stay faithful to the big dreams, the ones that call us out of narrow nationalism and into the sometimes thankless task of setting an example of true leadership and generous dreams. These are the winners who trust us to be free by helping our brothers and sisters around the world to see what it looks like to be free.
Having stated my commitment to honor winners, even those who are imprisoned for the sake of their beliefs, I come to Memorial Day with a sense of hope in the ultimate Good Sense and Goodwill of the entity our Founders called “We the People.”