Millions of Americans will head to beaches and barbeques this Memorial Day weekend, perhaps even hundreds of millions, while only hundreds of thousands are likely to attend formal Memorial Day observances devoted to remembering the men and women who have given their lives so that the rest of us could live in safety and have the freedom to enjoy those beaches and barbeques. For many of us, those statistics are easy to bemoan, they are not however necessarily a bad thing.
While some may decry a seeming lack of appreciation for those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation, that may not be the only way to assess the differences between how people spend their time this holiday. For some, those formal observances may be important, even sacred, events. Not all people however, need to formalize how they remember in order to do so.
Memory is an aggressive act. No, I don’t mean aggressive as in belligerent. I mean that memory requires that we make decisions about what and how we choose to remember. I mean that memory doesn’t just happen, and that when it does, it doesn’t happen meaningfully because someone else simply demands that we remember.
Memories are created, and lasting memories are created when the experience of what we remember and how we remember the past empowers us in the present. That’s just another way of saying that whether at a cemetery, parade or backyard grill, Memorial Day will only have meaning when our memory of the past connects to our present lives – something that can happen in all of those settings, and many others as well.
Any place in which people connect their experiences this weekend to the fact that whatever it is they are doing, and wherever it is they are doing it, are only possible because of others who have helped to make it possible, becomes a place of Memorial Day memory.
While knowing that others are involved in making our lives possible is pretty much always a good idea, this weekend, attention is turned to a specific group of others who made our celebrations possible – the fallen heroes of the U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement communities.
Can that really happen poolside as much as parade-side? Is it as appropriate by the grill as it is by say at the cemetary or at a grave? It depends upon who you are and how you handle the situation.
No location is inherently superior as a place of memory, especially for those of us who have no personal connection to one of the fallen or to their families, and I think we can say with confidence that those who fell did not do so, so that we would go to parades and visit their graves. They did so, so that we could enjoy what the entire world knows as “the American way of life.”
Because memories need to be created, the issue is how we choose to acknowledge the debt we owe to those who have helped to make the lives we enjoy possible. That also means that those who enjoy more of the American Dream have a greater obligation to acknowledge that which we enjoy. The bigger the gift received, the greater the responsibility created.
Rather than debate which is the most appropriate place or way to honor this Memorial Day, a question typically answered with the answerer asking others to do as they do, I think a different question is the order of the day.
This Memorial Day, we should all be asking ourselves how much we benefit from our American lives. How much do we, our children and those we love benefit from living in this country, and how can we acknowledge that we would not be here without the sacrifice of others?
Wherever we are, and whatever we are doing this weekend, those are questions we can ask and answer. They are questions which evoke gratitude, and gratitude is often the key to happiness, so it turns out that a moment of carefully chosen memory this weekend is not only the appropriate thing to do, it will actually enhance your weekend. It may be just the kind of win-win for which so many thousands gave their lives, and understood that way; it explains why Memorial Day is both a time of somber memory for some, genuine celebration for many, and possible to observe in as many ways as there are grateful people willing to do so.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.