Imagine what it would be like to have no memory. Imagine starting each day anew, from a cognitive standpoint. Picture yourself with all that freedom! And no clue what to do with it.
Now, title that exercise: “ideals and reality are very far apart” (from the 1973 movie “Walking Tall”). Perfection is what we’d like, but reality is what we get. Passionately we long for freedom, while diligently encumbering ourselves.
All this talk of ideals — and liberty (or freedom) in particular — is apropos of the season; it’s Memorial Day weekend, and we’re in an “ideal” frame of mind.
Memorial Day is a day of remembrance, and ideals reside in memory; they have history. Reality, on the other hand, exists only in the present — as if there were no yesterday or tomorrow; the past has taken flight, while the future has yet to land.
To see what we mean, here’s an experiment: Try reflecting on the ideal of liberty without the aid of memory. Not much to build on, is there?
We rely on information from the past in order to envisage a future for ourselves, and avoid being stuck in the present, where — from a cognitive standpoint — you’re born and then you die; end of story. Without memory, devoid of yesterdays and tomorrows, our lives would lack dimension — meaning.
Of course, ideals alone don’t do the job either. Ideals are conceptual; they exist only in spirit. For an ideal to be of use to us in the flesh, it must be dedicated to a proposition. That’s the reality piece. And it’s why, 150 years later, we still inscribe Abraham Lincoln’s words on our 21st-century hearts.
When Lincoln spoke of a “nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to (a) proposition,” he displayed his grasp of both ideals and reality (and his good memory for the wisdom of the Founding Fathers — and their predecessors).
After all, how much liberty would each of us enjoy without an accompanying dedication to the proposition that all men and women are created equal?
Think about it: Without the limits imposed by our dedication to that real-world proposition, liberty would be a rough-and-ready business. It’s dandy to have a nation conceived in liberty — until the exercise of one person’s liberty threatens that of another. Which would take what, a nanosecond?
So liberty, the ideal, is tempered by a particular proposal we Americans accept: that we’re all created equal, so your right to liberty is just as valid as my right to liberty.
In fact, it’s not so much that “ideals and reality are very far apart” as that they coexist in parallel universes. Flesh and spirit are discrete, yet interconnected as well. Haven’t we all had occasion to wonder: Where does mind leave off and matter begin?
And here’s a very “Memorial Day” illustration of that interconnectedness. A year ago I shared a podium with Sen. Susan Collins, who talked about the Memorial Day tradition handed down to her as a child — the genesis of her appreciation and respect for our soldiers, past and present.
I, on the other hand, said nothing of personal experience. My address explored President Lincoln’s take on the conflict from which Memorial Day was born — the American Civil War.
On the surface, our speeches stood in total contrast to one another, which made for a nicely balanced program.
Yet when Sen. Collins spoke of the reality, the concrete things — Memorial Day parades and the men and women whom we honor — she did so in support of our American ideal of liberty.
And while I, on the other hand, took the conceptual approach, pinning my speech on the ideal itself, I did so in order to emphasize the importance of observing our Memorial Day traditions. For without the observance, the ideal would fade from memory. Yet without the ideal, the tradition is empty.
Christ said: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63).
He’s pointing out, of course, that — while our flesh and blood dimension is essential — it’s also pretty transitory; useless for purposes of giving us life with any true scope.
It’s the spirit, such as the concept of liberty that we Americans embrace, that survives the body. Anyone who’s lost a loved one can testify to that; those folks stay with us, in spirit, for a very long time.
Of course, the cost of having a spirit that transcends human life is death. If we may invoke another holiday, we Americans still have “the spirit of ’76” only because patriots gave their lives for the ideal of liberty.
Loss of human life is heartrending. But our failure to honor and uphold the ideals for which soldiers have died and are dying would be tragic.
So we remember. We remember by observing Memorial Day, so they do not die in vain.
The Rev. Dan Lakeman is minister emeritus of West Gorham Union Church. He and his wife, Faye, live in Windham.