For better or worse, Memorial Day has become synonymous with the beginning of summer in our culture. A day meant to honor those service members who gave their lives for our country has lost much of its somber meaning.
But this year, perhaps, it will be easier to remember.
Because this year, unlike in the recent past, the usual Memorial Day celebrations will either be off-limits or much riskier than ever before. The spread of the new coronavirus means that large gatherings and communal experiences are still discouraged. Perhaps in this new context, the day can regain some of its meaning.
We certainly hope that no one flagrantly disregards public health advice. It would be sadly ironic if a day meant to honor sacrifice for this country became one in which a potentially deadly virus found thousands of new, willing hosts.
However you mark the day, you should remember that the United States has always been special because of its ideals. Yes, it’s easy to see and learn about all the ways in which we fell and fall short of those ideals. But what’s remarkable is the way that those ideals of freedom, justice and the common good persist, the way in which reformers across the spectrum continue to be motivated by the best version of our country.
Perhaps it’s mostly in our minds. But we all know what we could be, if we work and sacrifice together.
We now face a pandemic where some of these ideals seem to conflict. What is freedom if we can’t go where we want, when we want, and do whatever we care to do? On the other hand, how can we do so if it’s a threat to the general welfare?
The easiest way to square these contradictions, perhaps, is to see our country the way that advocates and activists throughout our history have. That is, our ideals are necessarily sometimes in conflict. We are tugged in opposing directions because these impulses are key to our founding — liberty for individuals, but freedom for the group.
These ideals fluctuate in importance over time. And that’s not a sign of weakness. Instead, like a lithe tree that bends in a storm, it shows that the United States can adapt and survive no matter the context.
Those brave souls we honor today fought for our country — both in quarantine and outside of it.