Earn This: Reflections on Memorial Day

In his last book, "The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations," Christopher Lasch wrote about the lust for immediate gratification that pervades American society.

"There is," he said, "a universal concern for self, for self-fulfillment, and more recently for self-esteem - slogans of a society incapable of generating a sense of civil obligation." Lasch could be proven wrong but it will take some reflection, greater discernment and more action on our part. A good time to begin is this Memorial Day and a good place is the community where we live. To help us along let us consider words spoken by President Abraham Lincoln.

In his Gettysburg Address, standing on the site dedicated, consecrated hallowed by the blood of the war dead, Lincoln, drawing from a sense of history said, "It is for us the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that this government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth."

Lincoln's hopes and dreams inspired other young Americans. Many of them made the ultimate sacrifice in the struggle against fascist dictatorships. (My father was such a man.) This Memorial Day we remember the men and women who have served our nation and particularly those who "gave the last full measure of devotion." This week we pause to honor their memories.

In that spirit of remembrance a film came out almost two decades ago, in 1998, titled, "Saving Private Ryan." The film remains an honest, realistic and direct motion picture that speaks to the very essence of the human spirit.

The story takes place in the days following the allied invasion of Normandy, June 6, 1944, when the War Department discovers that three of the four sons of a single Iowa family have already died. The fourth son, Private Ryan, is somewhere in France. General George Marshall, on hearing about the situation, decides that the fourth son will be located and brought back to the United States to safety and his family. The question which the motion picture holds before us is this: What is the value of a single life? What is a life worth? Quite a bit, General Marshall decides: whatever it takes. The problem is that before Private Ryan can be saved he must be located and no one knows for sure where he is.

The squad of GI's who are assigned the task of bringing him out, struggles with the issue. So does the viewer. The mission is very costly. The GI's don't get it. They feel demeaned. They insult Ryan before they ever meet him. "I have a mother, too!" one of them says. And behind that statement are the questions, why one and not another, what justifies priorities, and what is it that we owe one another, our families, our institutions, our nation, the human race. What does it mean to be human? What is the responsibility, at the end of the day, for having been given the gift of life? These are ethical, moral and spiritual questions ultimately. They are questions with which we all must come to grips. In the film the questions are addressed through the soldiers' devotion, sacrifice, and incredible courage as they carry out their assignment.

Although the GI's would not call it a bond of love, that's really what happens within the community of GI's on the mission. It's the kind of love, which scripture reveals in the words, "greater love has no one than this, that a person lay down his life for a friend." At the very end, many of the GI's are dead. Private Ryan is saved and comes upon the Captain, who in civilian life is a high school English teacher, a father, and husband. The Captain lays on the ground mortally wounded, and as he lay dying he says his very last words of the film as he looks at Private Ryan: "EARN IT!" Earn this. "Earn it!"

This is, I think, the most important message of Memorial Day. We have been given a very precious gift and our life has been bought at a very dear price. Others have sacrificed for us. Others have died so that we can live. Most of us have not earned what has been bequeathed to us. But we can. We can live the rest of our life in a manner that honors the gift of life and the ones who paid the price.

There are many ways to do this but one of the most important ways is to become engaged in our democracy. To work for justice for all and to hold high the ideals, values and virtues that made America great. In our generation we have to "earn it" in the normal everyday fields of American life. By the nature of the fact that we are here we are obligated to earnestly seek to use our ability and our capacity to care, to give, to help, to serve, and to sacrifice - that life in our nation might be elevated.

John F. Kennedy at his Inaugural in 1961 said, "I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago. The world is a very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and to abolish all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe - the belief that the rights of man (woman) come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God. Finally, whether you are an American citizen or of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice that we shall ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must be truly our own."

Memorial Day should ultimately be a call for civil obligation and civic engagement, earning the rights we so often take for granted that were won with a price.

Dr. Steve Berry is a resident of Manchester.


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