Memorial Day is coming soon, as I write, and it brings to my mind a thought that lingers with me now: modern Americans are sincere and respectful about the patriotic rituals we maintain, but we’re not especially well aware of why we maintain these conventions. A restaurant near where I live posted a sign on the occasion of Memorial Day, thanking all enlisted personnel and military veterans for their service. It’s a fine sentiment but it’s misplaced. Memorial Day commemorates those who have served America and are now lost to us. It is a day of remembrance for the deceased, not a testimonial to those we have with us still, however brave or honorable we know them to be.
The point is that most of us live with a grim but facile awareness of the difficulties and dangers in this world, and how that contrasts with the driven and perhaps decadent pursuits or ambitions of our own daily service. But death is too much to handle. It’s uncomfortable to deal with, and it cannot be improved. It’s best to make a quick acknowledgement and get back to our own concerns.
We sense that the world is a rough place, but we think others should manage those problems. And we feel more or less indicted by the knowledge that others (not just military personnel; police, fireman, and “first responders” earn nods, too) are doing those difficult and self-denying things in our place.
The lives most of us inhabit are not nearly as difficult as we suppose them to be from moment to moment or hour to hour. There is a lot of stress, of course, but stress is not the same as exhaustion or injury, or worse — all decreasingly common aspects of daily work. This too is a very good thing, but it undermines our sense of worth. We see other people working harder, sacrificing more. We wonder whether we are "less good" because we don’t have their troubles, too.
All of these ideas, impressions, and fears run through our minds, making us highly sensitive and less able to maintain the thread of understanding about our society and civilization, and our relation to it all. No wonder we cannot make clear the true meaning of Memorial Day. Likewise, Fourth of July and Thanksgiving Day are being commuted into moments when we are inclined to express nominal deference to some greater purpose, but no firm commitment to principle. We have internalized the sense that the world is complex and dangerous. And that’s enough. Give us assurance that someone else will take care of the misfortunes and tragedies, so that we won’t have to do it.
How do we know about these things? Well, it’s not hard to know anything today: we are all wired for regular updates of information that may be profound but is more likely trivial, or accurate but more likely doubtful. We understand that most of the thoughts running through our minds are banal, but we prefer that to the fear or despair we see from a safe distance. Amid all the silly entertainment we use to alleviate our boredom, we take a few daily doses of shock, outrage, and disgust from news reports that explain all the tragic, pitiable, and unjust developments of the past hour or so.
And when we’re moved to respond to this we may communicate “thoughts and prayers” to our social media contacts. It’s more proof of good intentions without good understanding. We extend thoughts to signal we’re paying attention, and we assure prayerful hope to suggest we’re not thoroughly self-absorbed. We have both options covered, because the object of these brief reassurances is really ourselves: we need to memorialize the sense that we are not numb to the knowledge that our lives need a deeper purpose.