In Canada November 11th is Armistice Day; more commonly known as Remembrance Day. It’s focus is on the exact time the treaties following WWI took effect, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Both of my parents served in WWII, so this has always been an occasion that I was taught by example to respect, for I had family on Dunkirk Beach, and family in POW camps and family killed on the line.
I was never taught that Remembrance Day was a sad day. Somber maybe, but not sad. The point from them was always to take the lesson; war is hell for all involved. As my father described it, “It’s just farmers from one country shooting at farmers from another country and they’re all good men and all they’ll want to do is to get back to their farm.” No hatred, no greed, no desire to conquer, and no sense of revenge. In fact my Dad moved to Canada right after the war and when he started his own company he hired some Germans, which points to one of my favourite things about my Dad.
I tend to write about Remembrance Day most years precisely because it would be a more serious and focused day in our home than any birthday, Christmas or Thanksgiving. It’s my parents sacred day, and it has become mine as well. Despite being so important, and despite my having written about it before, I find this year there is an adjustment in how I feel about it.
Rather than being maudlin about it, I’ve always been taught to be grateful there is no war, and to be grateful to the people who gave their lives in the effort to maintain our freedom. Additionally I was taught that enjoying my life was the price I should look toward repaying if I wanted to honour that sacrifice. If they were going to give up their life to create the opportunity for me then it would be fitting that I would create something worthwhile. I was never made to feel guilty, but somehow they instilled in me that it was fitting to honour the dead with more life.
I still feel that this year, but there’s a new layer too. I love that about life. When you’re present and quiet-minded so many connections between things occur to you. This year it’s that Remembrance Day is not only a day of profound gratitude for me, it’s also a time of deep meditation. On suffering.
When I want to really comprehend the opportunity I’ve been given I get into the nitty gritty of the moment to moment life of those guys in the trenches. Eighteen years old (if they weren’t like my Dad and lied to get in at seventeen, or even sixteen some of them). Rain. Winter. Cold. Wind, trenches filled with water, dead people and rats. And all of your gear for the next few weeks. Oh yeah, and a bunch of people are intentionally shooting and lobbing shells at you, so you’re also terrified. You also have little to no idea why you’re there.
If you get deep into the moments of something like that, you start to have things dawn on you, like; a good friend could die and you would have literally not have even a single moment to fully grasp it at the time. Grieving would come later, as a blur of uncertainty about what really happened because it happened so fast. Or you could lose your squad, lay in injured while shells hit the sand all around you and you’d have no choice except to lay there in agony waiting for a medic to wander by. Even simple things like; what if you have to pee super bad during a battle? And then on your break you go back to the trench and the cold and the wool and the rats and corpses and you eat some three month old sardines from a tin. These were tough people.
Today is when I suddenly realised that that is when and how I set my year for gratitude up, because I always build new experiences every year. Soldiers in different places, doing different things, experiencing different things. Yet during the following year, when I want to generate patience or compassion or connection–or especially gratitude and appreciation–I suddenly realised I always call back to that year’s memory and I compare what’s happening to me to that.
It is remarkable how fast I go from upset to feeling truly silly. It’s funny; being humiliated by the comparison brings out the best in me. We’re all like that. Humans are better than they give themselves credit for either singularly or as a group. We do like it when the group likes us, but we like it even more when they respect us because they think we’re a good example in some way. So when we see things we respect, it inspires us.
My parents have been a great example, teaching me to honour the sacrifices made while not emotionally taking over the event for myself; they taught me to value life and liberty, and that’s lead me to take my citizenship and connection to others very seriously; and they taught me to be grateful for the life that was literally protected for me by total strangers. I’ll be wiser this year seeing my meditation on the 11th in this new way. I’ll see it as a touchstone; a talisman; or a spell. When I face adversity, I will use that meditation to generate the appreciation that will drive away any thoughts I have of excessive personal suffering.
Find your own examples of these prices. Maybe second generation immigrants can consider what their parents sacrificed to give their children greater freedom. If your parents have served during wartime, or suffered disease or loss, it is a worthwhile thing to consider that deeply.
Maybe you’ve recovered from a drug addiction and can think back to your own past. Look at your children and remember that places like children’s hospitals are filled with children and parents who were never so lucky. Feel the pain of that and know that some people carry that pain daily, and that it is love that carries them through. It will make you more empathetic toward everyone, because if you do the meditation thoroughly, you’ll realise that most of these identities are invisible when you walk past these people on the street.
Consider creating a yearly meditation. It can be a different subject every year, it can be like mine and stay the same with just the details changing, but find some touchstone of true suffering. Something you believe you can truly relate to. Then use that for the rest of the year. When you’re in a long line at the store, just think back to the kinds of things people have survived before you and you’ll soon find you’ll be feeling better, because there’s really nothing better you can do with a bad experience from the past.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations locally and around the world.