In the United States, we observe Memorial Day on the last Monday of May. Many Americans mark the day by getting together with friends and family and enjoying the spring weather with a picnic or barbeque, and many towns hold parades. But first and foremost, this is a day when we remember the men and women who died in service of the United States of America.
Memorial Day began in 1868 after the American Civil War, which took the lives of at least 620,000 soldiers. At first, the day was referred to as “Decoration Day” – when people would lay flowers on the graves of those who died during the war. This practice continues to this day; I remember my grandmother, in the days leading up to Memorial Day each year, would go to the cemetery and clean up the graves of her parents and other family members. And she wasn’t alone. Every year at Arlington National Cemetery just outside of Washington, D.C., hundreds of volunteers gather to lay flowers and American flags on the graves of every service member who has been laid to rest there.
In additional to honoring those who perished on the battlefield, we also use this day to reflect on what those brave men and women were fighting for. A fundamental tenet of the United States, enshrined in the Constitution, is that we are continually striving to “form a more perfect union.” Progress toward this goal usually happens very slowly, and every president of the United States has tried to inch toward this ideal of perfection. But there are some leaders who had the prescience and character to seize upon extraordinary moments in history and propel the country forward. President Abraham Lincoln – who was president during the Civil War – was such a leader. In fact, word of his accomplishments spread far beyond the borders of the United States, more than a century before Facebook allowed us to communicate with anyone, anywhere, instantly. I am reading a book by the esteemed American historian Doris Kearns Goodwin called “Leadership in Turbulent Times.” In a public talk that she recently gave about her book, she relayed a particularly compelling story about Lincoln that greatly resonated with me that I would like to share with you now.
The story comes from the first-person account of Leo Tolstoy, who recounted a trip he took to the Caucasus Mountains in the early 1900s, toward the end of his life. There, in a remote village, Tolstoy met a Circassian tribal leader who asked him to tell him and his tribesmen about the world’s great leaders. Tolstoy spoke of Napoleon, of Russian Czars, of great military leaders. When he finished, the Circassian leader expressed disappointment that he had not mentioned “the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world” – Abraham Lincoln. Tolstoy was stunned that even in this village, a world away from the United States, this tribe had heard of President Lincoln and admired his legacy. Tolstoy concludes that Lincoln was so revered, not because of military or political success, but because of his character – he was a true humanitarian. Because he reached out to his enemies for the benefit of humankind. In his second inaugural address, with the Civil War still ongoing, he said his one goal was “lasting peace among ourselves” and called, not to defeat the enemy, but for “malice towards none” and “charity for all.”
On this Memorial Day, may we all strive to emulate President Lincoln’s humanity, compassion, and commitment to justice. May we all develop and exercise the quality of reaching out to our enemies for the greater good of achieving and sustaining peace.