Silence on my part isn’t common. I generally have a great deal to say, and my words are often delivered in a constant stream of thoughts and opinions.
But I wanted to ensure I didn’t make any missteps during this conversation. I was speaking with a woman whom I admire and respect for her experience, perspective and passion for serving others. Not only that, but I knew why she was asking, and I felt the need to be cautious.
But being cautious doesn’t mean avoiding the truth, so I finally said, “people who try to elevate their own importance by misusing positions that should really be about helping others.”
The woman on the other end of the line laughed, made reference to someone we both know and the rest of the conversation was incredibly meaningful.
But our discussion has stuck with me during this long weekend: one intended to honor those who gave all they had, including their lives, for something in which they believed. Most weren’t high-ranking members of the military who received respect because of their position. Some had no option but to serve while others were following a calling. But all were soldiers, and all were important.
I can’t compare the world in which I work to that of the military. With a few exceptions, nonprofit organizations aren’t dangerous. But the work is about serving others – not about getting applause or attention or accolades. It is also a world in which I belong. After stepping away from it for just over a year, I realized it is where I do my best work.
But that doesn’t mean it is perfect.
Every day I encounter people who don’t appreciate the work or see it as less valuable than money-making businesses. But they aren’t nearly as difficult as the people who actually work in the field but don’t really understand that it is a way of life – – not just a job. And I have little tolerance for people who complain that the work is too demanding.
Here’ the deal: serving others isn’t easy.
It means we have to let go of our egos and realize that we are no more important than anyone else.
As a former boss once said: everyone who walks through the front door of our organization should be treated with the same respect – whether they are a homeless person asking for help or a potential million dollar donor. Each one is God’s child and each one deserves kind words.
I wish I could say I always follow that principle, but there are times when I have a very difficult time showing respect for colleagues who are more earnest about feeling important than they are about helping others feel important.
But on days like today, when we honor those who gave everything for others, I have to put it all in perspective.
And I remember that life isn’t intended to be easy. It is intended to be a series of lessons about how to make the world a better place. Today, families across the United States are remembering those who did just that — made sacrifices to improve the lives of others.
And the rest of us simply need to say thank you for being so important.
The bloodiest single-day battle in American history occurred approximately 15 miles from my house. Nearly 23,000 soldiers died, were wounded or went missing after twelve hours of combat on September 17, 1862 at the Battle of Antietam during the Civil War. The lingering echoes and impact of that battle are still felt more than 150 years later.
Both the Union and the Confederacy experienced devastating losses, and historians have never declared a true winner. But for me, my family won. My great, great-grandfather James F. Bartlett (his biography and obituary are on this website right below Edward Bartlett’s) fought with the Massachusetts Infantry and survived. although he did sustain injuries on May 6, 1864, at the Battle of the Wilderness.
Ironically, my husband’s great, great-grandfather, John Snyder, died in June 1864 of wounds he sustained at the Battle of the Wilderness while fighting with the Stonewall Brigade.
Years ago, a local historian gave my husband and me a tour of John Snyder’s town and legacy. The tour ended at Elmwood Cemetery in Shepherdstown, where he is buried.
Newly married, I was actually interested in John Snyder until our volunteer tour guide pulled out a Confederate flag for my husband to place on his great, great-grandfather’s grave.
I loudly proclaimed that the Confederate flag had a very specific meaning, and my husband was not allowed to touch it. He tried to explain the flag was meant to honor his great, great grandfather, but I declared that the Confederate flag had nothing to do with honoring anyone. My husband placed the flag on the grave anyway.
Years later, I recognize my words were nothing but rude, and I had absolutely no right to be indignant.
I’ve never put my life on the line for my beliefs, and I have no right to judge those who did. All I can be is thankful.
The passage of time can change perspective and opinion about what is best and sometimes even what is moral, but it will never change what is honorable.
My children carry the blood of two honorable men who fought for what they believed during a time when our nation was completely divided. They also carry the last name of a man who lost his life fighting for what he thought would be a better life for them.
On Memorial Day, I have no right to argue about putting a Confederate flag on a soldier’s grave. Instead, I should simply be grateful that I have the freedom to make those arguments.
That freedom didn’t come without a price, and today we honor those who paid it.
Which means I’m being inundated with reminders about what the holiday means … a time to remember those we’ve lost, particular those who served in the armed forces.
I understand that. I appreciate that. And I even recognize the importance of supporting those who have served our country — regardless of whether or not we believe in the cause.
But the rebel in me questions if our eagerness to honor members of the armed forces has almost become so cliché that we don’t really consider what being a hero is – and what it’s not.
Being a hero isn’t about a title or a position… it’s about a behavior. It’s about putting your own reputation, sense of comfort or even life on the line for the greater good. It’s about fighting the fight for future generations rather than for ourselves.
And sometimes we forget that there are different types of battles to fight.
My concerns surfaced again when, over the weekend, I was trying to do some “spring is almost over” cleaning.
I found a button that said “Straight But Not Narrow.”
Given the recent national debate over gay marriage, I smiled when I realized I had been given the button more than 20 years ago. My smile soon turned to sorrow when 1) I realized that in the past 20 years, our nation really hasn’t come that far and 2) The person who gave me the button died years ago.
His name was Roger, and he died of AIDS.
He, like so many in our armed forces, died in the middle of a battle and with a great deal of honor.
Roger never hid his HIV status. Nor did he hide is sexual orientation.
In fact, Roger was one of the most open people I’ve ever met. If you asked him a question, he never sugar-coated the answer. He sometimes gave you more information than you wanted, but he never pretended the truth was pretty.
Roger will always be one of my heroes: those people who not only stand up for what they believe, but who put their own reputation and livelihood on the line to defend what is right.
Before he was infected with HIV and before his partner died of AIDS, Roger owned a hair salon.
That was his life before AIDS.
His life after AIDS was dedicated to educating West Virginians about the disease.
West Virginians are good people, but they aren’t exactly progressive… just check out their track record in the last few elections.
But Roger didn’t let closed-minded people get in his way. He knew that closed minds are like closed doors… they just need the right key to open or unlock them. And once they are unlocked, options and possibilities greatly increase.
Roger was the key to opening more minds and more doors than he ever knew. And the possibility he was seeking was a country where no one was infected with HIV again.
And so Roger knocked on and sometimes knocked over closed doors so he could share his message. He went to service clubs. He went to other types of clubs. He went to churches. And he went to schools.
He went wherever he could be heard and wherever people would actually listen.
His voice was definitely heard, and people definitely listened. I have no doubt Roger saved lives.
The only life he couldn’t save was his own. The medical battle against HIV was in its infancy, and Roger eventually succumbed.
But like so many other warriors, he left this world a better place than it would have been without him.
To me, that’s a hero. That someone I want to remember. That’s someone who inspires me.
That’s the type of person Memorial Day is all about.