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.
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.
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.
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.