It’s Memorial Day, which marks for many of us the opening of the summer season. It ought to be a somewhat somber and meditative holiday, marking as it does the sacrifice of those who have fallen for our freedom.
But for most of us, it is mainly a day to relax or begin house projects that have been long neglected. Summer is the season where it feels as though time extends—and not just because I still enjoy the luxury of the academic calendar. Everything moves slower in the summer, and the days grow longer. In Waco, the reward for working or playing outside is a heat-induced lethargy, which can only be fought off with the coldest of beverages. In the summer, we are given more time to enjoy the world, which can prove to be a rather exhausting affair.
It is not bad, of course, to spend Memorial Day in such a fashion; in fact, it seems positively the point. Those who died in service to our country did so precisely so that we might smoke pulled pork and make ludicrous sandwiches in peace
. They gave time on our behalf—not only in and through their service, but in and through their (presumably) untimely, premature deaths. George Eliot’s emphasis on the quotidian and non-romantic in Middlemarch
has an anti-evangelical edge, but it also generated one of the great images in the English language, which is perhaps more apropos for Memorial Day than any other in the year: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
It is tempting to become nostalgic about America’s past, and to romanticize its wars and those who served within them. My parents’s generation (the Boomers) may not have known a just war, but almost certainly knew people who served their country faithfully. That’s less true of my generation
; the gap between civilians and the armed forces has grown wider, and we by and large know fewer people who serve than did our parents. Such a gap makes nostalgia especially potent and dangerous—but it also makes monolithic dismissals of the military easier as well. None of this is good for America but, well, here we are.
It is fascinating in the midst of discussions about the putatively pernicious effects of liberalism on American society how little gratitude there is for the world we do have to enjoy. Yes, liberalism has corroded much of the American family, and yes, whether we enjoy the benefits of American society is partially stratified by race and class. Not everyone enjoys those benefits equally, and that is a real problem. But we all enjoy do enjoy certain fundamental liberties that are not obviously givens. Yes, taking tax exempt status away from religious colleges would be bad—but the threats to our culture and our faith are by and large exceedingly subtle. And for that, and for much else, we should be glad, rather than fear.
So Memorial Day ought to be a day where we enjoy the time that the early summer gives to us, and where we linger out of doors and barbecue with friends and family. But it also ought to be a day where we give some time to the memory of those who made it possible, and ask ourselves in what we we will also give time and freedom to those who come after us.