Jewish World Review May 28, 2004 / 8 Sivan, 5764

Russell Friedman & John W. James

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What a Difference a Day Makes | Memorial Day as we know it today began as Decoration Day in 1866, in upstate New York, after the cessation of the Civil War. First conceived as an homage to those who had given their lives, it soon evolved to also honor those who had survived. Within two years it was renamed Memorial Day, and over time came to symbolize our community need to stay ever mindful of those who had sacrificed their lives for our freedoms. Although the official birth of this annual event was in the North, the Southern states had parallel ceremonies, which were eventually joined as the national holiday we commemorate every year.

A tremendous amount has transpired in the intervening 138 years.

Currently, we are under potential daily assault by terrorists. We are also inundated with news about the war in Iraq and the ongoing strife between Israel and the Palestinians, and all other hotspots on the globe. And we are still reeling from the cumulative impact of the events of September 11, 2001. We have been forced to re-examine how we live our daily lives, how we travel, and how we observe the normal events that swirl around our public movements.

With all of this going on, the need for a Memorial Day is as important as ever.

For the past 58 years, there has been relative calm inside our borders. All of that came to a shattering halt on September 11, and has been amplified by recent events. But we must not overlook the fact that during that time there was Korea and Viet Nam and Iraq 1 and Afghanistan and other non-peace events. Each of them produced a large number of dead and wounded veterans.

We must remember to honor them all today, lest we miss the point of Memorial Day.

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For millions of us, September 11 and subsequent events have signaled the end of our metaphorical Disneyland. The fantasy that all is okay in our world has given way to the terrifying survival reality that is a daily diet for people in many corners of the globe. Sadly, we must face up to that reality.

Most of us were not related to or even acquainted with anyone who perished on September 11. But most of us heard the recordings of those phone calls made by people on the doomed aircraft that day. What we heard provided us tangible proof of what the real "bottom line" is for us creatures called human beings. In the heart-stopping moments before the ends of their lives, the people who could, contacted their most precious loved ones to tell them how they felt about them just before they died.

None of those calls had anything to do with mundane, day-to-day details. They had nothing to do with money and possessions. They had only to do with one combined thing, love and relationships. There was no time for small talk, or anything other than, "Thank you" and "I love you" and "Take care of yourself and the children." And, "Goodbye."

We were deeply affected by what we heard in those recordings and the reports of calls from within the collapsing buildings and doomed aircraft. It opened a place in our hearts, in an inward spiral, first for those who had died, then for those who survived them, and finally for all the people - past and present - who had affected our own lives.

Our collective grief expanded our sense of love and connection to the single thing that stands out above all other things - our relationships with other people. That expansion encouraged people to be nice to each other. Strangers within neighborhoods got to know each other. People who might have argued over a parking space, deferred to each other. Courtesy abounded. Pleasant smiles and exchanges were the order of the day. Isolation and selfishness seemed to evaporate, and conversation, connection, and camaraderie took their places. This shattering wake-up call reminded us all of our essential humanity and provoked us to act the way our parents and teachers had taught us when we were little. And it was a good thing.

Little by little, our lives got back to normal. Our fears subsided. We re-boarded aircraft, and though still very alert, our hyper-vigilance was reduced to manageable levels. We stopped being glued to the news channels in dread terror of the next horrific chapter. We learned a lot about potential dangers and we may even feel better prepared to deal with a variety of life threatening possibilities, on behalf of ourselves and our families. That too, is a good thing.

For a while, the impact of September 11 brought us together, at least in the ways we've mentioned here. But then we slipped back to pre-September 11 levels in our sense of relationship to those outside of our own inner circle.

And then came the terror alerts, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq 2, and the lingering aftermath.

Only this time, we are not joined together communally the way we were on September 12. We are divided into camps that split families and friendships apart. People can't seem to talk civilly with each other when they have opposing views. A friend of ours said, "The country is totally polarized and evenly divided." What a chilling comment. There is an abyss. It is one that overlooks the ultimate message that we needed to take from September 11. We must pull together not apart.

Lest we forget.

Memorial Day evolved from its original and singular idea to include a far-reaching concept of honoring all who had fought for us. However, somewhere along the way, like many holidays, it took a commercial detour that replaced the true intent of memorial. As we drove to a meeting the other day, a voice on the radio announced that this Memorial Day was truly going to be one to remember. The voice went on to tell us that the cause of such powerful emotion was the incredibly low interest rate that was available on Memorial Day weekend for the purchase of an expensive luxury automobile.

You know it's true, you hear the same ads we hear. We are not trying to change commerce. We are simply pointing out that the idea of honoring those who have made it possible for us to afford those cars and drive them safely inside our borders is getting lost in the shuffle.

We must remember all the brave souls who created our freedoms: in our American world; in the larger world; in our cultural, religious and philosophical worlds; and in the heart of our most personal family world. We could all withstand the pressure of smiling at a few strangers, of inviting a few people from the outskirts of our lives into the mainstream, and to defer as often as possible in the parking lot of life.

Above all, we must remember the real purpose of Memorial Day and make our communications as poignant as the ones we heard on those tapes.

To all the veterans who have served in situations beyond our comprehension, we say, "Thank you and we love you."

To all the veterans who have died for our way of life, we say, "Thank you, we love you, and goodbye."

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Russell Friedman & John W. James are co-founders of The Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks, CA [ ], and co-authors of "The Grief Recovery Handbook & "When Children Grieve. John is a Viet Nam combat veteran. Comment by clicking here.


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04/23/04: Columbine — Five Years On — Anniversary or Sad Marker?
04/16/04: ‘Just the Feelings, Ma'am’
03/19/04: Reduced to Joy?
03/12/04: Emotional Root Canal
03/05/04: Where in the h-ll has civility gone?
02/13/04: The Heart Has a Mind of Its Own
12/31/03: Grief is Not a Partisan Issue: The Year in Review from a Different Point of View
11/11/03: Tuesday Morning at Eleven
10/30/03: Raging Fires --- Broken Hearts

© 2003, Russell P. Friedman