Monday, July 09, 2012

Earn This

Sunday I gave a devotion at the memorial service at my 30-year high school reunion. I prepared remarks that weren't really very religiously focused since I wasn't sure what religious backgrounds would be represented either by the people attending or by the those who'd passed away. Persons of a faith background may cast different parts of this devotional into that background as they may feel appropriate. I've also omitted the opening part, where I told my classmates that standing before them in this kind of role was one of those deeply weird experiences that I'm pretty sure I never thought would happen.

When Steven Spielberg was interviewing World War II veterans for Saving Private Ryan, he noted how many of the men said they felt they were trying to live lives worthy of the sacrifices their buddies and fellow soldiers, the ones who hadn't made it back, had made for them. He distilled that into the line from Tom Hanks to Matt Damon near the end of the movie: "Earn this." Later the older version of Damon's character would ask his wife if he had been a good man and a good husband and a good father, wanting to believe he had lived a life worthy of the sacrifices that had been made for him. 

I remember some reactions to that line were kind of unhappy with Hanks' words to Damon -- they thought that asking someone who lived to earn the sacrifices made on their behalf, up to and including the greatest sacrifice of all, was too much. How could a person live up to that kind of expectation? It was too much, too much to expect of anyone. 

But when I reflected on it and read about Spielberg's research I realized three things: One, it wasn't likely many soldiers had actually asked that of each other. Spielberg was as I said illustrating an attitude about the war and those who fought it by using the phrase. For another, the feeling more likely grew out of the hearts and minds of the survivors, as they struggled to honor their fallen comrades in the only way left to them by being the best men they could be, the kind of men they imagined the fallen would have been had they lived. The fact that the feeling of debt and obligation originated in their own feelings certainly didn't make it any less powerful. 

Our friends who've gone on may not have given us any such challenge either, nor did they sacrifice themselves on our behalf. But we are still sad about losing them and we are still sad when we think that our great and good friend who meant so much to us is now a part of the past and the rest of the world will move on without them. We don't want this to be -- we may accept it more now than we did when we were younger, but we don't rest any easier with it. 

We wonder why we are still here even though they are not. We probably wonder it especially when we consider the people we believe offered more to the world than we do, or who we think were nicer or better. We may just wonder why they're gone and what we're supposed to do about it to make sure that their memory remains as long and as bright as possible.

So maybe we should live our lives to to show the world how lucky it was that our friends were here. We should live our lives to make the impact they had on us felt far beyond their reach, stilled now in death. They were good friends and so we'll be good friends. They showed love and compassion and so we will show love and compassion. They were gone too soon so we won't let the days go by without telling those we care about that we do appreciate them and their influence on us.

They didn't sacrifice themselves for us, but they gave us the gift of their friendship. Whether they saw it that way or not, whether they said it or not, we can live to be worthy of that, to earn it.

And the third thing that I learned about what Spielberg had Tom Hanks say to Matt Damon was that we know we can't earn what was given to us as a gift. But we make the world and ourselves so much better when we try.


Amy Wallen said...

Beautifully said. Words to live by. So sad I couldn't be there.

Friar said...

Amy, thank you. I appreciate that a lot and wish you'd been there also!