I visited an old church graveyard this morning. It was dawn; no one else was there. Countless gravestones – some weary and weathered – were festooned with flags. While most who gave their lives in combat rest in formation in Arlington, this modest graveyard spoke more quietly about the decisions that generations of men and women have made. In one scarred and moldy stone was carved a name followed simply by “Civil War” as if nothing more need be said. Another lopsided marker merely said below a name “War of 1812.” For most of the other flag-marked graves, carved into their face, right along all the family affections of father or husband, were rank, branch of service and the war – WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam. There will be more.
You need not go to a graveyard to gather evidence of these choices; look around at the current generation of veterans who are living life without arms or legs – or a peaceful night’s sleep.
What compels anyone to seek out and point a weapon at Death and hope they have the faster trigger, the better aim, is the acceptance that there is a greater purpose, an ideal, that is worth more than their own life.
Too often, I find that the people who scream the most defiantly about their rights to personal liberty are the ones who are least inclined to have their blood join the pool in which that freedom is refreshed. The coffins below these flags hold normal citizens who served — and sometimes died — for a purpose. And here I stand on the holy soil that covers them and wonder if I am living that purpose, a life as a citizen that would be worth it to them.
There is a difference between enjoying freedom and exercising freedom. Exercising freedom is not just acting freely. Like exercise, it is work. It means being informed before I vote, volunteering before I march, giving before I demand, listening before I speak. It even means sometimes a greater good might need to transcend my own.
Our nation is riven and rent by razor-wire ideologies, while the call to govern ourselves and answer a call higher than our own interests is lost in the clamor. We will not always get our way, but part of sacrifice is to realize that. To merely unleash our freedom on each other, as if that is the real test, is to invite the worst form of defeat: Self-defeat.
I know days like today are here to remind us — and most of us, for a time, yield to that. But then there is Wednesday and then Thursday and then the weeks and months, and we, well, forget. Standing here in the dew, I am reminded that I have no clue about what sacrifice really means.
As I looked at the graves — nobody I knew and nobody who knew me — I am thankful, but I’m not sure that’s what they really would want.
I think they want to know if we are willing to live like we’re worth it.