Monday, May 25, 2009

Lest we forget

On the last Monday of May, people in the United States celebrate a holiday called Memorial Day. Originally, Memorial Day was a day set aside for remembering those who had died fighting in the Civil War. Days of remembering those who had died in that war were celebrated in various locations, and eventually there was a consolidation into a single day of remembrance. It was not until 1967 that the day was officially called Memorial Day. Until 1971 Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30. In 1971 it, along with numerous other holidays, was turned into an occasion for a long weekend, and so moved to the last Monday of May and the first long weekend of the summer.

Memorial Day appears to have been hijacked by patriots and made into a holiday for honoring people who have died in the course of military service. That is an unfortunately limited selection of the dead to honor. The day should be a time of remembering all those who have died whom one wants to make sure not to forget.

An expression that one hears often during Memorial Day with reference to those who have died in wars is the phrase “those who gave their lives for their country.” One might as well refer to people whose houses have been robbed as those who gave their property to theft. People do not give their lives. People join the military for any number of reasons—at many times in the history of the United States they were required by law to do military service—and politicians send armies into armed conflicts in which people's lives are taken, not given. Referring to a killed soldier as someone who gave his or her life to his country is a way of trying to distract everyone's attention from the ugly and tragic and unnecessary waste of life that invariably takes place in war.

Memorial Day is a time to be ashamed. It is a time to hang our heads in shame for being part of a society that sends people to their death as part of serving the selfish interests of the powerful and the unimaginative. As long as we are recognizing our shame, let us remember that war has many more victims than those who die in uniform. Everyone on the planet is in some way or another a victim of every war that takes place. Wars devour resources, destroy habitat, create shortages of food, and disrupt the natural economy in countless other ways. Not only human beings but creatures of all species suffer from the environmental degradation that takes place in wars. As Edwin Starr sang about war, “it ain't nothin' but a heart breaker, good only for the undertaker.”

It is worth remembering that war is not the only form of human incompetence that leads to suffering and death. We should also hang our heads in shame for allowing people to live in poverty, and for using products (such as computers and mobile telephones) that place strains on the environment by using energy that must be generated and by concentrating toxins that eventually return to the earth and endanger life in ways we can barely comprehend. Memorial Day is a time for not being forgetful of all the ways we contribute to death and devastation through our incessant craving for short-term comfort and convenience. It would be good if we had an entire holiday set aside for nothing but remembering that, but until such a holiday is declared for that purpose, we can use Memorial Day.

Shame is only part of life. Memorial Day is also a time to celebrate, a time to be grateful. It is a time to recall all the positive contributions made to the world through noble thoughts and noble actions. It is a time to contributions made in the past by all the peacemakers, philosophers, holy people, artists, authors, actors, painters, sculptors, music makers, scientists, engineers, philanthropists, mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncle and neighbors who have enriched our lives in obvious and in subtle ways. To forget all them while remembering only fallen military people would be tragically narrow and short-sighted.

Life is possible only through death. The dead literally provide the living with their food. On most days of the year we forget the everything that sustains our life is something that was itself at one time alive. We forget that we ourselves are food, that our bodies will eventually sustain the lives of creatures who come find ways to eat us. Memorial Day is a time to remember that, in the wonderful words of the Taittirīya Upanishad “Oh, how wonderful it is! I am food. I am food. I am food.”

I wish everyone a Memorial Day spent in fruitful reflection, a bit of shame, a lot of celebration and a recollection of our place in the food chain.

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