This weekend includes the Memorial Day holiday, during which we honor and remember those who have served our country in the armed services. It is a complicated time, often marked by a sense of sadness and loss for those whose lives were cut short in defending our country—but also one of appreciation and gratitude as we remember the lives they lived and left behind, and as we experience the freedoms and opportunities that their sacrifice has helped secure.
In reflecting on the meaning of Memorial Day, I came across a very useful observation by Kristin Ann Hass, who has written about the importance of memorials and our interaction and participation in them. Noting the complexity of our emotional response to the way we commemorate those who fought so selflessly to preserve our democracy, Hass writes, “Memorials are the way we make promises to the future about the past.”
If this is true—and I think it is—Memorial Day is not a static moment, but a living event in our history. As citizens, Memorial Day requires that we revisit the promises we made (and make) to those who are willing to risk life and limb for the ideals of our nation, for the safety of our communities, and for our health and happiness. It is not a conversation we can ever afford to leave aside, and one that we affirm with every commemorative parade and solemn ceremony.
The spirited enjoyment of our great democracy is what those heroes fought for. What better way to celebrate their lives than in sharing our abundant lives with one another? If there is an opportunity to communicate the importance of the holiday to our children, surely it is when we combine our appreciation and gratitude for selfless service with participation in being the kind of communities our heroes gave their lives to protect.
Author and playwright Elie Wiesel puts an even finer point on the significance of how we commemorate the memory of those whose service might begin to seem distant or faint. Nothing could be clearer than his terse warning: “If we stop remembering, we stop being.” Memorial Day is a day to remember those who make our democracy possible. We are forever in their debt.