The coronavirus epidemic claimed more than 230,000 American lives in early November. Half of American adults who reported losing jobs due to Kovid-19 were still unemployed at the end of September. From racial tensions and civil unrest to bitter national elections, 2020 has caused deep, insensitive suffering for millions of Americans.
Combatant giants teach us that grief – even the insensitive kind – can make sense if love for others is accepted or dissipated, even from people we may never meet or know. Huh.
For many people, it has been “one year of hell” and more of a year of hell – a seemingly endless rush of anxiety and loss with separation from family, friends, community, work, church and other associations that make life worthwhile. Period. While alive, a deadly virus disrupted almost every aspect of society.
Veterans Day is an opportunity to disrupt disruptive.
Honoring over 17 million veterans of our country provides perspective on hardship. Combatant giants teach us that grief – even the insensitive kind – can make sense if love for others is accepted or dissipated, even from people we may never meet or know. Huh. Americans who wrestle with the test of a tougher and tougher year like 2020 must not only stop to honor veterans, but find an example of how to redeem personal losses and grow strength to move forward.
To begin with, our National Observance of Veterans Day, in short, diverts our attention away from ourselves. The growing civil-military gap meant that as of 2018, veterans were only about 7 percent of the US population. Pausing to reflect their service emphasizes the work and needs of others living with us.
Unlike Memorial Day, which honors America’s fallen people, Veterans Day celebrates the nation’s surviving sons and daughters who took an oath to protect the Constitution, wearing a uniform and causing damage in theaters of operation around the world.
We trace the origins of the holiday for Armistice Day and the end of the First World War, when the warring powers agreed to stop hostilities at the 11th hour of the 11th month of the 11th month. This ceasefire came amid the Spanish flu of 1918 – an epidemic that killed an estimated 675,000 Americans and more than 50 million people worldwide – allowing us to make deeper connections to the historical roots of the day. While different in degree, such an experience is no different for us.
Reflecting the experience of veterans dismisses them without even telling us of their difficulties. By setting aside the unqualified experience of war, which most Americans have never experienced, there remain other challenges regularly endured by service members that could appreciate Americans more deeply in 2020.
Like the challenge of being separated from loved ones.
Social distortion measures mean Americans missed birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and funerals in 2020. Many can also remember thanks. The year of our separation gave America a glimpse of what our veterans regularly say about their active-duty careers. In 2010, the average length of deployment across all branches of service was seven and a half months, and service members regularly deploy multiple times.
Imagine going freely for major life moments and cumulative years of milestones. Not only birthdays, but births of children; Not just holidays but the entire holiday season.
This is one of the things that has always made military service so powerful: those who go through it separate themselves from loved ones for the sake of others. They go through lucrative private sector careers. They give up stable home life. And they do this for people they don’t know and in many cases, never will.
The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously stated, “Hell is other people.” Separated from friends and family, in 2020, Americans discovered that hell is indeed different. His mentors have known it for a long time.
Recognizing this helps us gain a deeper understanding of Veterans Day, to focus on and develop resilience that can follow testing times. Grief – even when the result of an impersonal force like an epidemic – does not need to be insensitive. Grief can mean, if love for others is accepted.
At an event with the Marines’ Memorial Club in San Francisco in 2014, then-retired General Jim Mattis noted the possibility, pushing back against a notion that all veterans were emerging from their service, as post-traumatic Sufferers struggling with stress disorder. Mattis said of the veterans of the Iraq War and the Afghan War, “where you come out of such a situation and you really feel kind to your partner and fellow woman.”
Jewish psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankel shaped a similar idea in his book “Man Search for Meaning”. “Everything can be taken from one man, but one thing,” wrote Frankel, “the last time of human freedom – to choose one’s point of view in any set of circumstances.”
The focus of veterans and our nation on their service is the example of this Giants Day can help Americans choose their response to suffering in the remaining weeks of this terrible year. And choosing well can help restore some of the torn threads of our national social fabric. Today is a good place to live with gratitude and to thank those who started the service.
This helps us gain a deeper understanding of Veterans Day, which can follow the time of testing for flexibility and growth.
This year has already seen many examples of selfless responses, but consider the case of Catholic Memorial School in Boston. High school boys serve as palaebearers at funeral services for homeless elderly whom they have never known. As one school administrator wrote, the experience helps boys “learn to empathize with the suffering of others and to see a stranger as their brother.”
Veterans Day gives us the same opportunity while the veteran is still alive. What’s more, it’s a chance to see veterans not only as brothers and sisters, but also for the people for whom they served.