by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove
The past two weeks have brought back to life for me the zeitgeist of WWI. I’m reading the fifth novel of a series about that war, while spending time with a close relative whose father was permanently scarred by that war. Two things the family knew about that decorated hero: he lay in the mud, his legs shattered, after his entire platoon was killed around him, and he never spoke about the war to his family.
It’s wonderful how the reality of the past becomes as real as the present through the skillful written word, a good movie, or a personal account. Something alights and touches both emotional and sensory spots in the brain and you’re suddenly right there, in the heavy mud of Flanders, caking on the hemline of a driver’s skirt, sucking men in up to their armpits, half-burying humans and horses , dead limbs re-emerging. The novelist Anne Perry has given me this, as a hint of what the reality might have been.
History –So What?
But, does it matter? To be able to grasp the past – what’s the value? I intuitively believe it’s vital that we connect with those who have gone through this same experience of living. The details are what allow us to recognize their humanity. Mud, wet, cold, hunger – I’ve know those only at camp, on bad canoe trips. Anne Perry propel s me to where it was 1,000 times worse.
But to what effect? Is the past just one more teacher? An important one but just one of many? Or is it the primary teacher. to which one has to return periodically after the lessons from many other sources have been absorbed?
Or maybe it’s, once more, an individual thing, important for some, not for all.
Regularly Recalling What Matters
But is there a benefit for the society (not just my individual journey) to dealing with the values that are promoted by those coming out of earlier generations? I think we all recognize that our generation had to break free from the narrowness we recognized. The past fifty years of change , following the two World Wars, have seen younger people push back against values that seemed to limit the chance of experiencing a more full life. I was taught, growing up in a community of veterans, to distrust Germans. Luckily, that one didn’t get passed on – our daughter would have no part of such limits and loved visiting Berlin.
But are there positive values from earlier eras that have a place in this new world? What are we finding is still necessary to our shared existence? Possible ecological disaster makes it essential to learn from each other and work together.
Cynicism Versus Idealism
Idealism is currently suspect. It’s often used synonymously with ideology. But it’s not the same. Idealism means, to me, holding on to a couple of values that seem important in just about every human situation (except maybe when facing a grizzly bear). If we counted the times that certain words appeared in this blog, I would guess that hope, love, courage, inclusion would be among the most used. There you have it – my ideals.
Some people find these concepts harmful in the way they’re used. Hope? Leads people to hold on to illusions, to the idea of being saved. Give up hope and you can start looking life squarely in the eye. Love? Everybody is essentially selfish and romantic love doesn’t last. Courage? Often detrimental to one’s self-interest. Inclusion? It’ll never work – too many fanatics around.
I re-encountered my own fundamentals last week, standing by an Emergency bed holding the hand of a dearly-loved family member. In one day, she had gone from grinning with pleasure at the sight of a line of trimmed cedars at the edge of the river she’s visited for 70 years, to having ‘septic shock” (full-body infection) from pneumonia. Doctors asked us about Power of Attorney, resuscitation,“life support”, heart failure, kidney failure, intubation, catheters, whoa!!
What the heck could we – who loved this person – DO? There seemed nothing left but to maintain vigil. Hope, courage, love, inclusion of us (the family) by the doctors so we could know what was going on. This was no WWI! But the same qualities were needed.
Prayer Re-Imerges As A Basic Language
A serious confession here: I also found in the next five days that the only words that emerged from my heart were prayers. When you’ve talked to God all your life, it’s not easy to stop at the Big Times. And my God (indeed) – she is getting better! Now I have to re-assess what this means – stay tuned to this space if such things interest you.
So What Has This to Do with WWI or II?
I’ll be darned if I know. But if life is partly about figuring out who you are, and what your best, most-fulfilling paths are, than you take the big times of hitting some inner core and decide there are major clues there.
This past few weeks I’ve been enlightened by those men in the trenches, and the women drivers (tip of the hat to Aunt Margaret) and those who rode over the submarine infested Atlantic for years (my father) and those who were blown up (my grandfather and uncle) and the teenaged millions who enlisted and were blown up, both German and French and every nationality. Oh What A Lovely War and many other theatrical ventures have shown us the massive errors in judgment that, from far behind the trenches, drove these wars and millions of deaths. But each person who had the guts to stand up and face what their lives called for can’t be dismissed as poor fools and turned away from. Nope. They were pushed to the edge and hung on to the same things that matter in everyday life – values and ideals based on the most old-fashioned ways of thinking.