I shared the following remarks on Remembrance Day (November 11th) in 2015 to the student body of Conrad Grebel University College (University of Waterloo). I am deeply grateful to Trevor Bechtel for inviting me to share them, and to the students at Conrad Grebel for their warm response.
A lot of people are remembering today.
Remembering is something that we do in different ways, for different reasons.
Remembering can be difficult to do, for various reasons.
Remembering can be difficult NOT to do, for various reasons.
Remembering is sometimes comfort, sometimes intense pain, sometimes indifferent.
Remembering is sometimes trustworthy, but sometimes not so.
I’ve been reading Sigmund Freud a fair amount lately. He wrote about the memories that one has of early childhood, and why those memories have a character so different from our memories from about the age of about 7 to 10, and after. Those memories of early childhood, he believed, are often “covering memories.” They are memories of things that seem mundane and not very important, but they become associated with something important that a part of our mind does not want to remember. His German word is often translated as “screen memories.” They are memories that screen out the more important things that are repressed, while still serving as a kind of stand-in for them, like a projection of them, but very distorted.
It might be better for us to hear it as “covering memories,” since we now so often use screens to remember, rather than to cover. Or, if the screens bring us video or games, perhaps they do help us to repress too.
Anyway, Freud found that it is possible, at least sometimes, to get back to the repressed memories, to the important stuff. But it is hard, and often takes a long time, and isn’t guaranteed to turn out right.
Remembering Freud on this matter can help us to remember how complicated it might be to remember, or to not remember, or to get a hold on what it is to remember.
I have a complicated memory that I’d like to share with you today. Before I share it, you need to know a little bit about me. I have been a Mennonite all of my adult life, basically since late adolescence, but I did not grow up Mennonite. When it comes to the kind of remembering a lot of people are doing today in Canada (and a lot of people do in the United States every May), Mennonites are often in a rather uncomfortable place. Our tradition has generally held that military service is not compatible with being a disciple of Jesus. I do see myself as in that tradition, and most days I’m pretty sure that’s what I think too.
But my father was in the US Army Air Corps at the end of World War II. The only reason he did not go to Europe was because the war ended. I’ve always had both family members and friends who serve. My son-in-law, whom I love as a son, has been deployed twice, first in Iraq and then in Djibouti. In that situation, I have long struggled with how I should respond when we are called to remember those who serve in this way. I’m very aware that such service is offered at great risk. Consciously. Bravely. It’s made more difficult, I think, by the fact that I have never been in a position where I had to worry about the possibility of conscription, and I was never in a place where it seemed like an option to me, such that I had to struggle with it in the first person, so to speak. I worry about being a convinced conscientious objector when I don’t know the measure of my own courage and readiness for self-sacrifice.
But here is the memory I want to share: It’s from about fifteen years ago, or a little more, I think. At the time, I was in a singing group, a barbershop quartet, with three men all of whom were older than me, and two of whom had served in World War II, and were active in the American Legion. As part of that group, I was sometimes asked to sing in settings where we were honoring veterans, and especially those who died in action. I did so, though not without some strong Mennonite guilt.
One Memorial Day I sang with the quartet for a ceremony at a cemetery, which was attended by a fairly large number of people. After the ceremony, one of the members of our quartet, one of the veterans, asked if we could go with a small group to another smaller cemetery on the other side of the town we were in. We went. Just the four of us in the quartet, and the honor guard, the men who fired the salute. That’s who went. There was no one else. We sang, the guns fired, and we were silent. We were not there for anyone else. We were not there for ourselves. We were there for the dead. We were there because, for my veteran friends, it was the thing to do to remember.
I was struck that day by how important it was to my friends, not to put on a show for the living, but to remember the dead. To not forget. I remembered that day despite all of my hesitations, despite whatever misgivings I had about what military action had been applied where, to whom, for what reason. Not because of what the dead had done, but because it was important to remember. I think I will always remember that time, in that cemetery. It’s made me more likely than some of my Mennonite friends to thank those who have served for their courage and willingness to do so, and to remember those who came back in bags, or coffins, or not at all.
I also remember Anabaptist-Mennonite fallen, who have at times accepted suffering and death rather than serving such that they might have to kill.
But I do remember both.
Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn captures some of the tension I feel, though differing some in the experience behind it, in his song “Each One Lost.”
Each one’s loss is everyone’s loss, you see.
Each one lost is a vital part of you and me.
Cockburn knows that this is true, not because we agree politically, but because we are all in this (whatever “this” is) together.
I share this with you today, hoping that you can see that remembering is not agreeing. Remembering is not endorsing. Remembering is… Remembering.
And if remembering is hard, that often makes it more important that we do it.