IN WHAT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE AN INTERVIEW yesterday about public service over a number of decades, I was asked, “What was the main driving force when you were young that made you want to be a humanitarian?” I have thought of this many times over the years, but when I replied, “World War Two,” the interviewer looked back in mild surprise. I went on to explain that I had grown up in Scotland following that great conflict, that my Mom had been a Scottish war bride, and that my Dad had been twice wounded in battle before being sent back to Canada to convalesce.
Later, growing up in Calgary, I came to regard the Second World War as a kind of constant companion. It took years for my father to recover and my early thoughts are filled with memories of that struggle. During those post-war years there were ceremonies almost every month – special battle anniversaries, building of new monuments, Spitfire and Lancaster bombers flying overhead, the opening of museums, and reunions of old battle buddies and gatherings of women who had participated in the effort in numerous capacities. Dad played for years as a drummer in a military band, and with his attendance usually required, he always brought me along.
But always there was the unnamed Guest everywhere in those formative years. Despite a revitalized economy, a growing middle class, creature comforts, and family holidays, Death was never far away. So many had died that the many who had survived were most often ensconced in a tomb of silence. Dad virtually never talked about his experiences during those war years, but I could sense, throughout his entire life, that the silence represented pain, horror, guilt, grief, and a sense of mortality. But more than that it represented the loss of youth and innocence for an entire generation of men and women. They had gone from idealistic and trusting boys and girls to a burdened group of adults in only six years (1939-1945). The bloom was forever off the rose – not because they had plucked it but because the evil of humanity had stripped it too soon from their collective life.
One would think that growing up in such an atmosphere would be morbid, but it was nothing like that. It wasn’t joyous either, but what it ultimately entailed were respect and the sense of shared sacrifice. Death had taken away millions during those years and yet it had returned to the living time and again as an effective guide to what is the most noble in life.
During those years I came to discover that death didn’t signify the end of something, but the rebirth of something else – something transcendent. Those years taught me, as they had instructed my parents in far more devastating circumstances, that the glory of nobility and sacrifice goes on forever. Those things one assumed had ended were still enduring, inspiring the hearts and minds of average people and their leaders to build a better peace. The war wasn’t over but had simply morphed into another field of battle that involved neighbourliness, a rigorous sense of civic responsibility, a profound sense of social justice, and the belief that peace never came for free. Only this time the soldiers were being replaced by citizens of every kind who had come to see that the new tools of this civic battle involved decency, tolerance, a growing protection for minorities, and the profound belief that our blessings belonged to the world and not merely to ourselves. We had matured enough to know that we couldn’t save our world without changing it, and we couldn’t change it without changing ourselves.
Because this is a universal truth, frequently accentuated by a sense of trial and loss, the dead never leave us, the buried become a part of our consciousness. They are everywhere all at once and we are elevated by their memory. A death that follows great sacrifice makes you see everything in a different way – our eyes are wider and contain depth. We become changed people because, by honouring those that have passed before us in such a remarkable fashion, we ourselves can face death and refuse it our collective soul. Our time, our end, will come, but not now. And in the meantime we will embrace those it has taken from us in a way that leads to a better life. Those slain buried in military fields around the world are not decaying bodies, but seeds in the earth that will bring forth a new and noble life in each of us. Their death is not only our rebirth, but their own. And they will remain our constant companions.
Remembrance Day isn’t merely about remembering but actualizing what the dead have shown and given us. We wear poppies as a sign of our respect, but it is the millions of memories that we carry in us, unseen yet profound, that make us want to live as better people, more active citizens, more adept at love than hatred. Every Remembrance Day is our opportunity to say to that Guest that always shadows us, “Not dead. Not yet.” We have a world to build – a better environment than what we have at present, and we will construct it with peace.
Remembrance Day is not a memoriam alone, but a continuation of all that is truly the best and most respectful in life. It makes death bearable and makes our own lives liveable. We are the inheritors of a great trust and we will live for what they died for. David Kessler notes that, “Deep inside of us, each knows there is someone that we were meant to be.” Remembrance Day, filled with the love of those that went before, reminds us that that “someone” is still there, waiting and wanting to better the world with acts of great humanity and sacrifice.