Is remembering enough?

Towards the end of Stephen Spielberg’s classic film ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (and without giving away the ending if you haven’t seen it!) a dying soldier says to a surviving colleague: “Live a good life”. The inference is that the soldier’s sacrifice is only worthwhile if what he dies for is good and of value.

In many ways, we are all that surviving soldier.

Annually, at around this time of year, we are encouraged to turn our attention to the sacrifices of our forebears in two World Wars, and several ‘lesser’ conflicts, as well as to the ongoing risks taken by those in military confrontations across the globe today. In these First World War centenary years, the build up to Remembrance Day has been particularly intense across the media.

My father served in Burma in World War II. His father, my grandfather, served in World War I including at the infamous battle of Passchendaele. I find it worth reminding myself that I have life partly because they both happened to survive those ordeals, when so many didn’t. In fact we’re all here because of a simple twist of fortune, which some may see as God’s will.

People of my generation in this country are unbelievably fortunate. Relatively few of us have known anything like the horrors that my father and grandfather endured. Most of us have lived lives that so far have been continuously protected, clean, and full of choice.

We have access to a standard of living that too often perhaps we take for granted. In fact there are many people now who seem to feel ‘entitled’ to such gifts as security, health and prosperity. No one is owed these things of course, and we have no right to assume they belong to us. However the wonder of this era is that most of us are able to access them most of the time, if we make the right choices.

We live at a blessed time in so many ways, a time of abundance of all kinds in our immediate vicinity, a time of wealth, information and freedom.

Our times have the potential to be ‘good’.

But I find myself wondering if I’m leading the ‘good’ life that Spielberg’s soldier wanted. Am I really making the most of my life in the way that the death of a generation merits? I think this is a question we might all ask ourselves, and not just at this time of year.

Sacrifice is a tough act to follow.

So yes, let us remember. Let’s wear the British Legion poppy. Let’s pay our respects formally. But let’s not just give lip service to it. It’s not enough to merely think and speak about what others did in the past. It’s insufficient to merely be moved by the images and symbols of other people’s loss. These responses don’t make us ‘good’. My ancestors didn’t endure hardship so that you and I could become emotional.

That’s not what they fought for. They did what they did, they endured those horrors, in part so that their loved ones could live and flourish and take part in a better world. Remembering is vital, but on its own it falls short of the mark. We must do more. We must try to ‘lead a good life’.

For me, ‘good’ means living in accordance with my highest values, in tune with my deepest ambitions, and from the starting point of service. The more I try to do that (and ‘try’ is the word – it’s tough to do, I never feel like I’m actually living from those high standards but I think I must keep doing the best I can in that way) then the more I start to pay back the debt owed to previous generations.

It’s only by being the best we can be – by not for example sinking into apathy or sentimentality or prejudice or an overblown sense of entitlement – that we truly pay our respects.

My father and grandfather confronted some of the worst that human beings can do in order that you and I can have some of the best. We show our greatest appreciation to them and their generations by making the most of who we are now and treasuring what is available to us.

We honour them by making the most of the inheritance they saved for us.

We respect them by leading ‘good’ lives – in whatever was you define that for yourself.


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