Sacrifice (noun) 1. the surrender of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim. --Random House Dictionary
One Memorial Day weekend not long ago, driving home from a three day holiday in the Green Mountain state, I saw a sign for the Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Randolph, just off Interstate 89, south of Montpelier. All weekend I had partied and barbequed and visited, but truth be told I hadn’t really remembered to remember the fallen. That’s the real reason for our national day of memory. So I pulled off the highway and made my way to a lush and green resting place for soldiers, women and men who had served their nation and, in some cases, made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives for their country, for a cause so much greater than themselves. For family. For freedom. For home. For sure. Sacrifice.
Ever been to a Veteran’s cemetery? It’s not like a typical graveyard. The headstones are usually simple and uniform in size, white granite squares, or oblong slabs, planted in the soft earth, row after row after row after row. There’s a humbling democracy to the placement of these markers: no one person’s sacrifice is greater or lesser than another. They all gave. They all gave up: time, family, career even a life, for others. Generals are buried next to privates. The killed in action lay side by side with those who served and then were discharged and went home. On each marker is a cross or Star of David designating the veteran’s religion. Then the full name of the deceased, military rank and what branch they served in, what conflict they fought in and finally birth and death dates. On holidays like Memorial and Veterans Day and the 4th of July, tiny flags stand guard at each marker, waving gently in the breeze.
I know why I stopped at the cemetery and it wasn’t because I knew someone who was interred there. Wasn’t because I am a veteran. I’ve never, ever really been asked by my country to sacrifice anything and that truth makes me a bit sad and even embarrassed. I’m not much of a flag waving patriot either. But I do love my country even with all its stumbles as of late and so I visited this place, I suppose, to remember the civic and the ethical and the religious virtue of sacrifice. This Vermont cemetery is a stark reminder of the ultimate sacrifice in war: to give one’s life. Vermont, with a population of 610,000, has the highest per capita rate of death in the Iraq war, 3.54 per 100,000 folks.
Sacrifice: the noble ideal that at certain times all humans are called upon to give of themselves, sometimes unto death, for something greater than themselves. That humans, far from being mere individuals or solo acts, are in fact always a part of a greater group: a faith community, a family, a neighborhood, a town, a state, a nation, a world. And that in order for these communities to thrive and survive, the folks within are asked to sacrifice at times. Parents giving up for their kids. Folks of faith giving up time and money and skills to help heal a hurting world. Soldiers giving in service for a nation. Citizens paying taxes to support the common good, volunteering time for community efforts, serving in public office, and remembering that true patriotism always involves so much more than lifting a beer and waving a flag on a hot May weekend.
It’s that last category, civic sacrifice, which I fear is most wanting in these troubled and often conflicted times for our democracy. Democrats and Republicans, tea partiers and liberal activists, scramble to save their own political hides. None offer a real vision of shared sacrifice to get us out of our fiscal and political woes. Instead the pols tell us exactly what we want to hear. What we selfishly demand they say to us. We can have it all with no sacrifice. Government benefits and programs like Social Security and Medicare and national defense, with no tax increases and no program cuts. A spiraling national debt which we will just shift on to the shoulders of those down the road.
The governmental gridlock we are now witnessing is not about a lack of answers or solutions. We know what we have to do. It is simply this: a lack of will and a lack of courage from the government and the governed. Does Uncle Sam have the guts to tell us we must now sacrifice, all of us, everyone? Does the citizenry have the commitment to country to then sacrifice, to give, and even give up, for the common good? I hope so. I pray so. Time does feel as if it is running out.
And if we need some examples of sacrifice, just pay a visit to a local veteran’s cemetery. Walk among the gravestones and markers and ask those men and women what they were all willing to do when their country asked them to serve a cause so much bigger than for mere self alone.
They gave. They fought. They served. They died. They sacrificed. Now the time for us to do the same too.