On May 30, 1884, Oliver Wendell Holmes, a 43-year-old Civil War veteran serving as a justice on the Massachusetts Supreme Court, gave a Memorial Day speech to a crowd assembled on a village common in Keene, New Hampshire.
His speech begins by addressing “a young man” who asked Holmes “why people still kept Memorial Day.” Holmes’ answer to that young man who hadn’t seen the war: “it celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith.” For a nation thankfully at peace, Memorial Day served as a reminder that security is precarious, and fate might call any generation to a duty where “you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out.”
Holmes then turned to the fellow veterans standing in front of him, those who 20 years earlier had witnessed and participated in the violence of committing themselves to a “long and hard course.”
To these men, Holmes recalled that “as surely as this day comes ‘round we are in the presence of the dead . . . I see them now, more than I can number, as once I saw them on this earth.” In stirring language, he went on to recount the lives and battlefield deaths of eight of his comrades.
Holmes used friendship—“on this day, at least, we still meet and rejoice in the closest tie which is possible between men—a tie which suffering has made indissoluble for better, for worse”—to shift his focus to the future. “We cannot live in associations with the past alone, and we admit that, if we would be worthy of the past, we must find new fields for action or thought, and make ourselves new careers.”
By the end, the speech pulls his various strands together—a nation increasingly comfortable in its peace, the fact of death and suffering, the reality of friendship, the possibility of something gained from deep tragedy—in a paragraph that eventually became the name of the address:
Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us. But, above all, we have learned that whether a man accepts from Fortune her spade, and will look downward and dig, or from Aspiration her axe and cord, and will scale the ice, the one and only success which it is his to command is to bring to his work a mighty heart.
I read this essay every Memorial Day, and it fills me both with melancholy for the friends I’ve lost to war but also gratitude for the new vitality that serving in a crisis offered me. This Memorial Day, the mixed emotions are similar, but on a different scale. This year Holmes’ words make me grateful for our nation’s frontline healthcare workers, and at the same time worried for our nation.
Nothing is more important than ending this pandemic as quickly as possible. But how we do it matters. On our current path, the collective memory will be mostly pain, with very little pride. It doesn’t have to be that way.
If men and women are given the chance to practice once-in-a-lifetime courage, societal emergencies can be ennobling for individuals and unifying for nations. The crisis might be remembered as one filled with horrible, deadly missteps, but one ultimately overcome by camaraderie, generosity, and hard work.
But the challenges of this pandemic are, for most of us, quiet ones, faced alone, without visible work to be proud of or sacred friends with whom to share that pride. As a result, when we look back on this moment, many Americans will instead remember 2020 as only a big, avoidable mess, just another step down in a decades-long decline.
The last paragraph of Holmes’ speech is an allegory about the possibilities on the other side of deep pain:
But grief is not the end of all. I seem to hear the funeral march become a paean . . . amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.
What steps can we take now that might enable us to hold grief and pride side-by-side in our collective memory?
First, politicians should use rhetoric that above all celebrates most Americans’ selfless efforts. Quarantining seems to have flattened the curve. Grocery workers have kept people fed. Neighbors are helping neighbors. There can and should be a healthy debate about when and how to continue relaxing mitigation protocols. But our leaders, especially the president, must stop using the reopening as a political cudgel, one that kills the hidden sense of togetherness buried deep inside a painful, but shared, experience.
Second, frontline workers should be given a context in which they can remember themselves as part of a greater whole, and one that is serving the country. Holmes could only give his speech because there was a Memorial Day, and though he probably knew very few of the men listening to him, at the pivotal moment of their lives they were all in the same uniform. Parades, holidays, days of remembrance—even the simple act of thanking healthcare workers for their service—should be undertaken to help frontline workers know that they were part of a great, selfless, and worthwhile endeavor that saved lives under conditions of great danger.
Third, more people should have the chance to serve their country, as several bills currently in Congress are encouraging. A common criticism of national service efforts is that few problems are big enough to require such a massive solution. Well, we’re currently facing a big challenge. There are several roles—contact tracers, support workers for frontline staff, tutors, and others—where lightly-trained individuals can actively help get us out of the crisis.
While I’m certain that many of our healthcare workers—those who are currently “carrying fortune’s spade”—will, in time, transcend their pain and lead the nation in years to come, I worry what the nation as a whole will make of the pandemic. Without a “spade to dig” or “an axe and cord to climb,” the current crisis leaves very little to be proud of.
Oliver Wendell Holmes spent about four years in the U.S. Army, almost died himself a few times during that short stint, and saw several friends killed violently in front of him. He went on to serve on the United States Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932, retiring at the age of 90. The first line of his epitaph reads: “Captain and Brevit Colonel, 20th Mass. Volunteer Infantry Civil War.”