Heroism, the human condition, and the promise of better angels

It seems strange to commemorate the anniversary of a tragedy. However, we’re engaged to view it not as a macabre celebration of the tragedy itself, but rather of the people who rallied against the odds to overcome the havoc wreaked when the sky falls.

Take Memorial Day. This day is about death, the dead. It honors those who lost their lives in service. Most don’t join the service to do ill. Most go in valiant defense of what some might call an abstraction – for, what is god? Or country? To be moved by faith that these abstractions exist and have value enough to lay one’s life down? I find that to be remarkable and brave.

And then we have this day. This day has a strange power over our populace. To date, all history was in the past, or at least oceans away. With the effect that this day has, and the affect that many people assert, it seems as if it happened just yesterday, in our collective backyard.

The very mention of this date is a point of veneration for many. A sacred artifact. Nearly 15 years later, most people are quick to recall “where they were when it happened.” Even now, stories emerge as if previously undiscovered, inciting a strange awareness, and eliciting a swell of awe and pride.

And because this history isn’t abstract (for so many), it feels different. When we say the words, there’s a taste in our mouth, the pace of our heartbeat quickens, and we are moved, as if compelled to live up to the promise of what could have been. These fallen strangers suddenly models of how we should hold ourselves

I don’t know if this phenomenon has a name, I don’t know how many people experience it, if they’re even driven by it, or even if they feel it places an unwarranted burden on them to be something they’re not.

It would be a strange responsibility, to live up to someone else’s heroism.How many times have we realized what time of year it was, and felt compelled to volunteer, or make some sort of sacrifice that serves some greater good? How many times did we hear of someone else’s heroism and say to ourselves (or others, if we are so  bold), “I’m going to give back. I’m going to do something equally great. I cannot let that have happened in vain”

I like to think that in my small life, as a nonprofit worker bee, I do things that give back. It doesn’t cost me much, other than 10-12 hours a day.  On most days, this is enough. But yes, on days like today, I am compelled. I am driven and inspired to do more.

But it will always feel that what I am capable of accomplishing in the name of tragedy will be infinitesimally small in comparison to the last measure of devotion given by others.

But I’m going to try anyway.