What does it mean to memorialize something? Dictionaries define it as the act of remembering something and, more specifically, honoring that memory; keeping it sacred in some deeply personal part of your being.
We memorialize all kinds of things as human beings and, without assessing negativity to the fact, most of these things are selfish – we are the most important person in our own hemispheres more often than not, by a matter of necessity. We memorialize moments, mostly “firsts.” First job, first kiss, first child, first bonus, first award, so on and so forth. We take pictures to commemorate them and look back on.
We memorialize lost loved ones and friends, even pets, and forge personally meaningful mental memorial plaques out of the steel daggers that pierce our hearts from their departure. We even build shrines and purchase tombstones to commemorate these memorials, or at least plant a carved wooden stake in the backyard to memorialize where we put our furry first real best friends to rest.
However, there is something unique about memorializing something or someone with whom you had no actual interaction with. For the families of soldiers who have paid the ultimate price for their service to their country, Memorial Day is almost just like any other day – they grieve for what has been taken while celebrating the life they now miss. The pomp, circumstance and recognition from others might be nice, for sure, but Memorial Day, to them, is a daily occurrence.
But for others, those lucky enough to have never been touched by the news that someone you knew – somebody brave and full of hope and the right intentions – has met an early end in a foreign place, these are the people who must stop for a moment and ponder what exactly Memorial Day means.
We live in a country that was bred from war, and there is no way to soften that reality. Without a violent uprising born from the desire to be free to forge their own existence, and without thousands of volunteers willing to die for that dream, the United States would not exist.
The world, also as we know it today, would be a completely different place were it not for the everyday young men (and women) who joined the cause – whether they jumped from a plane into enemy territory during World War II or aided wounded soldiers (regardless of their allegiance) during the Civil War. All these people played a role in our history, an immeasurably important one.
In modern times, our conflicts have become decidedly less simple to choose a side than when things boiled down (in an admittedly oversimplified way) to “slavery versus no slavery,” or “Axis versus Allies.” Today’s conflicts, perhaps outside the war against the barbaric ISIL, are drowned in shades of gray that divide Americans on whether or not we should be involved at all.
Rest assured, this is exactly what generations of brave American soldiers fought and died for. To be able to disagree with one another, or with the country’s direction itself, without the threat of persecution or even a death penalty is exactly why they volunteered to jump out of airplanes under heavy fire and spend years in hostile places experiencing nightmares most of us can only fear to imagine.
That freedom comes with a price, and over a million Americans throughout history have paid it for. That is what Memorial Day is about. It isn’t about whether you agree with our current militaristic strategies or occupations, and it isn’t about whether you think the country’s elected representatives are making the right decisions.
Memorial Day is about recognizing and remembering that we are here, today, retaining the right to complain, and disagree and disparage issues we find to be obscene because people that came before us believed in the ideals that spurned a revolution nearly 250 years ago – and they believed in those values enough to fight for them.
Memorial Day is about recognizing the fact that there will be hundreds of thousands of people grieving for their lost friends and loved ones, not just on Memorial Day, but every other day of the year. While the people who have not lost a loved one to a conflict may not be able to understand their pain, we can all empathize with it, and offer a kind word of support, at least one day of the year.
Although we may be at a crossroads in this country politically, keeping Memorial Day sacred is something we should all be able to agree upon. We owe our very existence to these people, the vast majority of whom we’ve never met, who now rest permanently below flag-adorned headstones.