Use this day to thank somebody who’s alive and not wearing a uniform.
What Memorial Day is today, and what it was meant to be, are two different things. It was originally to honor Civil War dead, and was eventually seen as an occasion to honor all the dead from American wars. Nowadays, if my Facebook feed is to be believed, it’s either an occasion to thank a living soldier for his service, or (at best) to remember soldiers who died to protect our freedom.
None of us should neglect the latter. Brave people have ended their lives to protect us in the past. But what of those who are living to protect our freedom? Who are giving their lives, minute by minute, for the well-being of their families, or communities, or country? What of those who are sacrificing much—or even everything—to defend us from ourselves?
Americans of all political persuasions have always recognized that there are two threats to freedom—foreign and domestic. (Our soldiers even swear to defend the Constitution against both these threats.) Domestic threats to freedom might be the big political or economic forces that usually bear the brunt of our outrage, at least when the bullies aren’t playing for our team.
But they can also be the quiet, gradual “soft despotism” of the choices of ordinary people by the millions.
These choices might be voluntarily trading the soul-forming beauty of good natural or man-made environments for material convenience. Or their privacy for a vague notion of safety. Or the precious gift of a strong community for a bigger house. Or the depth of real spirituality for an easy Sunday commodity they can consume. Or their children’s freedom to do what they think is right for the warm fuzzies of being on the winning side in a policy debate.
Such things rarely feel like threats to freedom at the time—and yet social scientists increasingly link the big problems of our time—from socioeconomic inequality to suicide rates to pornography and drug addictions to human trafficking to culture wars to actual persecution—to the disappearance of positive forces people in the past traded away (consciously or unconsciously) in moments of thoughtlessness.
I’ve noticed several times lately how much power for good a person can wield, just by being the one person in the room with the knowledge and guts to make them raise their hand and say “no.” But in cases when we ourselves are threats to our own freedom or well-being—especially in an age of Twitter shaming and ideological sameness when people seem particularly unwilling to tolerate divergence—the person willing to do that must be heroic indeed. He must often suffer ridicule, vicious slurs and slanders by the hundreds, death threats, loss of livelihood, and much more–some of it from his own friends. He may not be giving his life in the sense of losing it, but he might very well be giving up life as he could have known it—comfortable, happy, wealthy, (relatively) untroubled by hatred or despair or danger or poverty.
We can all think of historical figures who have been willing to make this sacrifice, and I certainly found myself remembering them today. But I also want to honor the living who are making this sacrifice as we speak—and try to be more like them.
The two people who came immediately to my own mind as I was thinking of this were Ryan Anderson and Alan Crippen. Ryan is known as perhaps the most prominent spokesperson for the Wrong Side of History—who amid seemingly constant death threats, public pressure, vicious slander, and rank stupidity not only defends what he sees to be the foundation of society, but does it with compassion and civility his enemies do not emulate. If I can ever manage to do such difficult things with half such grace I’ll be a lucky man. Alan Crippen, at a time when the Right was ruining institutions and churches pouring money and political capital into short-term legislative fights and PR campaigns, founded the John Jay Institute on the long-range belief that America’s culture and politics desperately need better leaders. For 10 years, he has almost singlehandedly swum upstream amid personal attacks and political opposition, economic hardship, death and disease in his family, and much more—and produced hundreds of the wisest young rising leaders I know, changing lives with a cultural and social ripple effect that will continue for generations. Crippen is my hero, and I’m also proud to say he’s my father-in-law.
Dying in battle for the right things might or might not be glorious. But living for them is sometimes thankless, seemingly endless, and can cost not less than everything. Who do you know who is giving his or her life for the freedom and well-being of others? I encourage you to take a moment today to shoot them a note of encouragement.
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.