Today is Memorial Day.
Usually, I don’t spend as much time as I should pondering the sacrifices of the men and women we are memorializing; like most Americans, I welcome a three-day weekend and perhaps, as this year, a cookout with my children and grandchildren. This Memorial Day, however, a death in my own family has me contemplating not just our inevitable mortality, but the numerous human behaviors that hasten the inevitable.
Today, of course, the national focus is on war, and the loss of young men and women in the very primes of their lives. As a parent, I can’t begin to imagine the pain of losing a child, especially in war. Wondering if he suffered at the end, wondering what sort of life she might have lived had she survived. As a member of society, I can only wonder what sorts of contributions to the common good we’ve gone without–what budding artist or inventor or entrepreneur was lost to us through combat.
Wars are not all avoidable; there are just wars. But those unavoidable conflicts are few and far between. The wars of choice, the wars begun by small men with big delusions, by impatient men unwilling to engage in diplomatic problem-solving, have cost so many precious lives that didn’t need to be lost.
It isn’t only through war that we hasten our own demise, of course. We humans participate in a veritable shmorgasbord of self-destructive behaviors.
The cousin who died yesterday was a bright, delightful, witty woman. (I still remember one conversation about an elderly aunt and uncle who were divorcing after some 50 years of marriage. When I wondered “why now?” she shot back “They were waiting for the children to die.”) Everyone loved Ann–she was classy and warm and outgoing. But even though she knew better, she smoked. Like a chimney. Eventually, she developed lung cancer that metastasized to her brain. It isn’t a pleasant way to go.
So many of us are like my cousin; we can’t seem to break behaviors we know are bad for us. We smoke, we overeat, we drink to excess, we drink and drive….We start wars. We get really good at rationalizing self-destructive, often suicidal behaviors.
On this Memorial Day, I’m wondering what it is about the human condition that makes so many of us act in ways that hasten the inevitable–and what, if anything, we can do about it.