Memento Mori

I can’t shake what I saw May 31st, 2011 . Here, it’s Memorial day. An American holiday. The word “holiday” derives from the term “Holy Day,” one that had sacred importance. In other languages it’s associated with celebration. Fiesta in Spain, Fête in French, a feast day.

His captains give Abidal the armband and the cup to raise -- "He deserved to go up there and lift the trophy and let the world see what a special man he is.”

On this day I’ve been thinking about what we choose to commemorate. Obviously the rule makers in our society determine the holidays; they tell us what they want us to remember, what is important in their eyes. Memorial Day for us commemorates those who have fallen in battle. Combined with Independence Day, we have two days that glorify armed combat. I’m thinking Ron Paul may have it right. His stance on foreign policy is “one of consistent non-intervention,opposing war of aggression and entangling alliances with other nations.”

I noticed on Memorial Day weekend that three of the best soccer players in Spain have shown us their way of thinking and who they remember.  All three players took decisions to recognize others and make these gestures while firmly in the media spotlight, with literally millions of people watching their every movement and listening to every word. When the norm is for the athlete to celebrate himself and his achievement, here’s who they chose to share the moment with:

The fallen friend: Dani Jarque – Espanyol’s captain who died suddenly with a pregnant girlfriend, remembered by Andrés Iniesta, seconds after scoring the winning goal of The World Cup final.

Iniesta has the world's attention and diverts it to a fallen friend.

The sick teammate: Eric Abidal – Barcelona defender diagnosed with liver cancer, suddenly named captain by his manager and captains at the moment of hoisting the Champions League cup in front of the world’s cameras.

The children who fight cancer: Abidal himself felt so changed by his experience, he decided to sell his collection of cars and donate the proceeds to programs for the children, a decision he shared with journalists in numerous interviews by all the big newspapers and agencies, saying “When you go through a sickness like this it changes everything in your head. Now I prefer to use the money from those cars to invest in hospitals, helping those kids, or collaborate with non-profits that do research.”

In the middle of the media apotheosis that covered these events, each player chose an atypical gesture that showed us that it’s only a game, and there are bigger things in life. Like the policymakers and politicians who put Memorial Day on the calendar, they let their actions make a statement about what they think is important  to celebrate.

"Cuando te toca vivir una enfermedad así se produce un cambio de chip. Ahora, prefiero utilizar el dinero de esos coches para invertir en hospitales, ayudar a los niños o colaborar con asociaciones para investigar enfermedades"

I know a little about military service – my father’s life was entirely given to it. He never worked a day in anything else. I owe my life to him in that sense, as I am a product of our imperialism. But with all I owe to the military, I look at our schools and wonder how many of our soldiers in Afghanistan would have to stand down before we could afford to make them right, to fix them.  Nick Kristof remarked on this recently in his column:

In Latin American, African or Asian countries, I sometimes see shiny tanks and fighter aircraft — but schools that have trouble paying teachers. Sound familiar? And the upshot is societies that are quasi-feudal, stratified by social class, held back by a limited sense of common purpose. (. . .) For a country that prides itself on social mobility, where higher education has been a traditional escalator to a better life, cutbacks in access to college are a scandal. G. Jeremiah Ryan, the president of Bergen Community College in New Jersey, tells me that when the college was set up in 1965, two-thirds of the cost of running it was supposed to be covered by state and local governments, and one-third by students. The reality today, Dr. Ryan says, is that students bear 78 percent of the cost.”

Spain and the region of Catalunya, including its capital Barcelona, have been through Civil war within the last 80 years. I met a veteran there in 1974. Spain is far from perfect but they seem to have evolved past armed conflict and its glorification as a part of national policy.

Their athletes are among the world’s best, and when the eyes of the world are on them, as they celebrate their success, these guys use these moments to remind us what needs remembering:  the sick, the dead and the welfare of children.

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One Response to Memento Mori

  1. John Beltran says:

    Nice entry, thanks for your ongoing writing I enjoy reading your blog.I like the positive light you cast on the personal character of the Spanish team and what they choose to commemorate.My comment has very little to do with the intent of your post, but takes one narrow part of it down a road I find very interesting so I thought I’d share it with you. I hope you find it an interesting as well.

    That the US Independence and Memorial Day represent “… two days that glorify armed combat” got me to wondering whether your words were describing the *intention* of these holidays, or to describing the way the nation *celebrates* them.

    Memorial Day is indeed a day to observe those who have fallen in combat. Does the act of remembering and honoring service necessarily glorify the events that lead to the need to serve? Is a day of national rememberance glorifying war, or is it the way many choose to celebrate it that glofifies war? To me Memorial Day is an act that speaks *against* the glory of armed combat. To me it screams “remember the cost lest you forget the lessons of history and enter into war too hastily”. Forget history and you are doomed to repeat it. Remember the cost others have paid less the value of their lives be lessened. Isn’t death in war part of the US history (all mankind for that matter), and don’t we want to remember the horrible cost humanity has paid for the sake of (any) national interest?

    Perhaps the US needs *more* Memorial Days, not fewer. Or perhaps the whole world needs to observe a Memorial Day. Or does the US public just need to change how the nation observes those who have fallen in armed combat. I don’t think there was much laughter and celebration when President Obama laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unkown Soldier on May 31, maybe the US public just needs to use that as an example for all Memorial Day celebrations.

    Independence Day is a day to celebrate the *declaration* the US independence from England. Celebrating that declaration does not necessarily glorify the War of Independence. Were it a holiday celebrating the War of Independence the US might have chosen other dates: perhaps the first battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, or September 3, 1783, the day the Treaty of Paris was signed to end the war.

    If one wants to look for a US tradition to pin US aggression on, perhaps a better target is the “The Star Spangled Banner”, the US National Anthem sung at every sporting event, parade, and holiday celebration one can imagine. It is a song about the US flag flying over Fort McHenry in the War of 1812. While nominally about the flag, the imagry invoked by the words is very clearly one of a pitched battle fought by a smaller force throughout a night and into the next morning to persevere in the name of freedom.

    I don’t particularly like the way the US celebrates some holidays, and if that is what you take exception with on Memorial and Independence Days then we are of similar minds. I can’t agree with the characterization of the intent of those holidays glorifying war.

    Finally I have to comment on one other point you make: “I look at our schools and wonder how many of our soldiers in Afghanistan would have to stand down before we could afford to make them right, to fix them.”

    The first time I read this I was confused at how a soldier standing down in Afghanistan would help us to to fix the broken minds and bodies that come home from all the wars the US fights. Then I realized you were talking about fixing the schools, not the soldiers. Fascinating. Gotta love language.

    My father, like yours, is one of those who spent his life serving in the US military. My mother has always said that the men she knew, including my father, came home from their wars different men than those who had left. Wars break many things – societies, nations, men, and families. I think this is something worth remembering.

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