This Memorial Day, Will We Find Meaning In Our Suffering?Historians in the News
tags: Memorial Day, COVID-19, mourning
Drew Gilpin Faust, the historian and former Harvard president, chronicled how Americans coped with 600,000 deaths in the Civil War in her book “This Republic of Suffering.” She pointed to how this pandemic has forced us to defer respect for the dead “as we pile people in refrigerated trucks and bury them in mass graves, even if only temporarily.”
In the disparities of anguish across the lines of race and class, “we’ve lost kind of an innocence about ourselves,” Faust added, even as we discover that we are “vulnerable in a way we never thought we were.”
Yet this pandemic will at some point call forth moments akin to Ronald Reagan’s 1986 address after the space shuttle Challenger exploded or Barack Obama’s 2015 eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney after the killings at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Both, said the historian James Kloppenberg, involved a leader trying “to make sense of death but also remind Americans of our shared commitment to the common good.” Alas, this is not something we can expect from President Trump.
Martin Luther King Jr. preached the possibility that “unearned suffering is redemptive.” We would like to believe that this widespread grief might lead to a new birth of empathy, justice and solidarity — a shared determination, as Faust said, to “take care of each other better, and watch out for each other.”
As a start, we can celebrate those who, right now, are taking care of the sick, the dying and the grieving. Like my old history teacher, they know that we cannot confront these losses alone.