Friday, December 01, 2006

For These Things…

On Thursday last, I made a resolution. Despite being an unpaid intern living 2,000-plus miles from home and not having even so much as a roommate to keep me company, I resolved that I would do all I could to keep the spirit of the Thanksgiving Holiday. And so began what turned out to be a most singular, and memorable, November afternoon.

After consulting my pocketbook, I determined that a conventional turkey dinner with all the holiday trimmings was, while not financially implausible, most definitely an ill-advised use of my rapidly dwindling disposable income. Being unwilling, however, to completely dispense with tradition, I prepared an alternative feast, devoid of turkey and pumpkin pie, but replete with the finest all-white-meat chicken nuggets and capped off by a delectable pumpkin-spice doughnut-a-là-Krispy-Kreme. With King’s portions for all (all being me), none (none being not me) left unsatisfied. And, having satisfied my baser appetites I turned my attention to weightier matters.

Having nowhere in particular to spend the rest of the afternoon, it only made sense to spend it somewhere, and, not really knowing what I was getting myself into, I decided that Arlington National Cemetery was as good a place as any. Here my holiday narrative transitions from a light-hearted tenor to a much more somber, even sacred matter. I hesitate to address it, and beg forgiveness if I cannot give due deference within the confines of my allotted word count.

Perhaps it was the whimsy with which I decided to make the trip, perhaps it was the fact I made the trip alone, or perhaps it was a natural naiveté, having but little first-hand experience with the institution of war. Whatever the case, I was not prepared for what greeted me as I passed through the gates of what has rightly been deemed “our country’s most sacred shrine.” From the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to the Eternal Flame, within the precincts of Arlington you will find some of the most moving memorials that men’s minds could conceive of. They are a sight to behold, commanding respect and inspiring patriotism. But the power I felt as I set foot in the cemetery for the first time is not found in those monuments. The true poignancy, the real spirit of Arlington lies elsewhere. It lies in roughly rounded headstones, on gently sloping hillsides, under the watchful eye of the sentinel foliage that whispers with profound gravity “This is holy ground.” Row upon row, in every direction, endless reminders of what it means to live—and die—free. Arlington is more than a shrine to those who died in the service of their country. It is a monument to American perseverance, it is a tribute to the ideal of freedom, and it is testament to the reality of enduring, even eternal truths.

It occurred to me, as I walked among those fallen faithful, that American history is more than a cluster of events that can be arranged sequentially, to which we can attach names, numbers, locations, or artifacts. Rather, the history of America is an evolution, an evolution that began long before the founding framers of our country ever put pen to paper to draft any document, long before the first shot of the revolution was fired, long before pilgrims ever set foot on this continent. The history of America is the evolution of an ideal. An ideal with many different names and manifestations—freedom, equality, love, truth. The American ideal is the human ideal. It’s the notion that there’s something bigger than the individual, something worth defending, something worth spreading. It has not been precisely defined, yet, because America itself is still a work in progress. But regardless, it is motivation enough for common people to make all the requisite sacrifices to preserve that ideal until it comes to fruition—and can be enjoyed, in full felicity, by all peoples, everywhere. It is our history, an unfinished narrative, and we, as much as any other, have the opportunity to influence the outcome.

And so I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude, that because of those who have gone before, those of us who are here now, are here, now. Life, Opportunity, Freedom, Faith, Choice, Sacrifice, and American Perseverance. For these things I give thanks.

-Josh Figueira

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