This weekend’s commemoration of 9/11/2001 and a decade of heartache and wondering about the meaning of it all have me thinking about epitaphs and memorials. What did all those people die for? What have the soldiers and wounded warriors died or survived for? How do we sum it up? How do we capture what they went through and fittingly remember? What slogans or proverbs should we devise or utilize to help us frame the angst of a decade marred by fear and death?
Will simple proverbs or sayings do? No, of course, they won’t. That’s too easy, mercenary, or cheesy. Proverbs and the like are a dime a dozen in our culture. New ones are as fresh as the new television season with its Madison Avenue pitches. Slang words and phrases are quickly assimilated into our common vernacular at the speed of our web browser, email carrier, or twitter hash tag. How can we memorialize 9/11 with both poignancy and permanence? A bumper sticker won’t cut it, that’s for sure! That’s not enough. I’ve tried to come up with something catchy, theologically sound, and respectful but I can’t. Where I think I’m headed this weekend is in how we live as a fitting memorial. Our actions will either honor or dishonor the memories of those heroes from the past ten years.
This begs the question: How do we live? What are our life mottoes? We all make some sort of statement when we walk in and out of the house, wear an US flag-themed tie, or a Gamecock hat. Most of us have little mottoes and mantras that define who we are, what we stand for, or where we’re from. Decals on cars declare OIB (Ocean Isle Beach) or HI (Hilton Head) or an allegiance to a certain sports team. One of the best symbols of the fair state of South Carolina is the Palmetto and Crescent that grace everything from vehicles to t-shirts.
Symbols and life mottoes give us an identity. They provide us with instant affinity groups. They do have rules, though. They should pass the t-shirt test. If they can’t fit on a -shirt, then they’re too long. Before t-shirts we put them on tombstones and called them “epitaphs.” Someone once said that such epitaphs, life mottoes, or mission statements should be short enough to be memorized and long enough to be memorable. How appropriate! The one that fits the United Methodist Church is like that: “MD4C” – Making Disciples for Christ.
I’ve seen some remarkable life mottoes in recent years from comedians to poets. Lily Tomlin purportedly claimed, “We’re all in this together – alone,” as her motto. Poet John Gay’s epitaph reads: “Life is jest, and all things show it. I thought so once, but now I know it.” There’s the humorous and the sublime. You can decide which is which: “Some days you’re a pigeon. Some days you’re a statue.” Then there’s the one: “God give me work until my life shall end and life until my work is done.”
What sign or symbols will be on your memorial? Could it be that we’re writing them right now? Joanne Lynn and Joan Harrold in their book Handbook for Mortals give some guidance in writing life themes. They call them the “Four R’s for the Spirit.” First is remembering. They ask us to take time to reflect on life and all of its happenings – accomplishment, failures, triumphs and tragedies. Next comes reassessing. They suggest that we should ask what our lives have added up to, or who we really have been, then share these thoughts with the people who know and love us so that they can give us their take. The third “R” is reconciling where we try to be at peace with our own imperfections. Last they suggest that we try reuniting, being at peace with others, friends and foes. As they put it about reconciling, “It is important to come together with friends when you can have the chance to say farewells and it’s important with enemies to say forgive me and I forgive you.” All four “R’s” can aid us in getting our epitaph written before our death rather than afterwards. I think this process can really help us do justice to those touched by the 9/11 tragedy.
With all the death and destruction from 9/11 and the resulting wars, we need to be people intent on memorable mission statements and life mottoes, creating epitaphs worth remembering. After we’re dead and gone people won’t have to wonder what to put on our tombstone. Maybe we should go ahead now and ask them what they have in mind to use because it’s not too late for a revision. 9/11 has me thinking about memorials, both mine and the ones we erect in our day-to-day actions for the victims of the last ten years.