Deborah Gatrell: The present is not all that matters

(Peter Dejong | AP file photo) In this May 30, 2004, image, people pause at a grave with the Star of David amidst other graves as they attend the 60-year commemoration service ahead of Memorial Day at the Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten, southern Netherlands. A total of 8,302 war veterans and war victims are buried at the cemetery. With the help of volunteers in the Netherlands, Belgium and the United States scouring newspaper archives and other sources, the Faces of Margraten project of Dutch historian Sebastiaan Vonk has so far uncovered photos of more than 7,500 of the U.S servicemen and women buried or commemorated at Margraten. They were due to be displayed next to graves in Margraten this week as Europe commemorates the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, but the event was cancelled due to COVID-19 coronavirus related measures.

We are living through a slow motion disaster that will mark another major event in future history books. The greater danger is in “presentism” - the idea that only present things exist.

We must do a better job remembering.

Memorial Day began as Decoration Day in the post-Civil War 1800s as a time to pay tribute to fallen Soldiers. It evolved into the unofficial start of summer and a major shopping holiday. Now, health care professionals are being described as warriors “running into death just like soldiers run into bullets…”

We certainly are in a war against coronavirus but we’ve forgotten what total war looks like. It has a direct impact on the homefront: regular citizens - you and I - are asked to sacrifice. Rationing was voluntary in World War I and mandatory in World War II. The government took over direction of the economy during World War I and World War II. Hundreds of thousands of American service members died in these conflicts. As fighting raged in other homelands across the world, millions more combatants and civilians perished. Everyone was impacted somehow.

A healthy dose of historical perspective can help us all reframe our responses.

Government emergency powers are expansive, whether the emergency is war or a public health emergency. Quarantines have been used since colonial times in the United States. There are multiple instances of closing public schools, places of amusement and banning public gatherings in the 1918-19 pandemic. There is little case law on these uses of government powers because the precedent is so long-standing. Those presently complaining about government overreach in our pandemic haven’t got a historic leg to stand on.

The good news is we will get through this, just like we got through the collective challenges of 1776, 1861, 1917, 1929, and 1941 - together!

Historical perspective can help us better individually cope too. There are healthy ways to manage our circumstances.

Active coping is empowering - we can all control something. I’m impressed by how Utahns are stepping up to make masks and organizing to deliver assistance to those who can’t make it out to drive through food distribution points. Farmers are feeding Utah. Distilleries have adjusted to produce hand sanitizer. A boat canopy company is making medical grade face shields.

This is the ingenuity of the American Spirit that has always gotten us through hard times - adapting to meet the challenge of the day rather than complaining about the inconvenience of the moment or demanding we go back to the way things were.

We can check on our neighbors, over the phone. We can donate to charitable causes, with money or time. We can read stories to children and play games using modern technology. We can learn new skills and rebuild strained relationships. We can exercise. And yes, we must recognize that people are stressed. Extend radical compassion and grace as much as you can.

We have reasons to be sad too. High School Seniors like my oldest niece are missing traditional graduation ceremonies. Many are out of work and now run the risk of losing housing and health insurance. Some businesses are failing. Senior citizens like my 99-year-old veteran grandfather are isolated.

If you need to take time to be sad, go ahead, just not in the wrong ways. Maladaptive coping strategies lead to higher rates of depression and associated long-term challenges. This is collective trauma and many will experience symptoms of PTSD. We already see cases of stress burnout in the medical profession, and we must do better supporting warriors on the pandemic frontline.

Above all, let us remember that everyone is suffering to some extent. No matter how bad we might have it, someone has had it worse. History is littered with trauma - even our own history. The great danger lies in forgetting, in thinking that our time is unique and no one understands our circumstance. It’s simply not true!

This is the lesson of history.

Memorial, from Latin word memoria, is the origin of the modern English word “memory.” On this Memorial Day, let us remember the sacrifice of service members and our past struggles.

And in remembering, let’s write a better ending to the current story. This is our moment to shine.

Deborah Gatrell

Deborah Gatrell is a social studies teacher, a veteran and candidate for Salt Lake County Council, District 2. Learn more at Vote for Deborah - SLCo District 2 on Facebook, follow Deborah on Twitter @DeborahGatrell1, and check out her website www.vote4deborah.com. She also chairs the Utah Veterans Democratic Caucus.

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