Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Mystic Chords Of Memory

Our maternal grandfather died sixty years ago.  I was five and my sister was four.  In truth, I don't really remember my grandfather, I don't think she does either.  I remember his funeral because it was a big affair that had a great impact on me, but my memories of him are sketchy at best.  Yet I know all the details about my relationship with him from the time I was born till the days before his death.  As his first born grandchild he doted on me, spoiled me, and lavished me with gifts.  I have these "recollections" because our mother was quite a story teller.  She'd tell the stories of our early childhood and her own childhood, so vividly, that she brought them to life and kept us enthralled.

We've tried to do the same with our children and even our grandchildren.  We are the "keepers of the memories" that are not written down in any book, but are passed on verbally from generation to generation as it has been done with many people since the beginning of time.  Our family history is interesting and fun.  It is filled with stories of joy and those of sorrow.  We do not want the memories to die, so we encourage our children to pass them on. 

Just as we want to keep our family's memories alive, so it is with the national memories of our country's history.  In  "Take Time To Remember," an article written for The Weekly Standard, by Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass, they write:

"American identity, character, and civic life are shaped by many things, but decisive among them are our national memories—of our long history, our triumphs and tragedies, our national aspirations and achievements. Crucial to the national memory are the words our forebears wrote, to show us who we are and what we might yet become. Robust citizenship is impossible without national attachment. National attachment is thin at best without national memory. And national memory depends on story, speech, and song."

National memory - today we find that our national memory, our history, is being rewritten.  Texas, the state where most school textbooks are published, is rewriting American history to include other subject matter that is not pertinent to the past history of our country or to the birth of this nation.  In its place they are adding ethnic history.  Thomas Jefferson, one of the wisest and most prolific of our  Founding Fathers has been taken out of the history books all together.

We are in a struggle with a different generation of Americans who dwell more on new inventions, electronics and technology, while seeming to ignore or push aside the  very important men, women and historic events which brought us to our present time.

"Lest we forget, writer, historian, witness, survivor, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel has dedicated his life to hold back that forgetfulness that makes a mockery of mankind’s struggle to prevail over the past and to make for a better future."   A survivor of the Auschwitz Death Camp, Elie Wiesel has spent a lifetime writing and lecturing about the Holocaust, lest we forget.  The first time I read one of his books, and saw those words written, I committed them to memory.  Those words have greatly influenced who I am, how I think,  and are the reason why I am convinced that it is important to keep alive our family and national memories. 

In his first Inaugural address, as the union of the great United States that Abraham Lincoln so loved was breaking apart and preparing to go to war, he ended his speech by saying:

"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."  

The phrase mystic chords of memory resonated with me, but I must admit, I never quite understood its meaning.  While researching the quote for this blog I was pleased to see that others appeared to have the same dilemma.  Fortunately I was able to find a satisfactory explanation which made it applicable to my thesis.

Speaking to The American Heritage Foundation, Wilfred McClay gave what is to this writer the most complete and understandable explanation of Lincoln's words: 

"When they are sounded, the mystic chords have the power to connect past and present, inner and outer, private and public, household and polity, locality and nationality in a single harmonious whole. During times of confusion and crisis, such as the nation was then facing, it could find composure and direction in recalling the Spirit of '76 and the Founders' heroic sacrifices. Citizens will draw strength and comfort from associating their love of the nation with the same warm devotion that attaches them to their own hearths. 

Could we not do the same today?

It is important to us that our children and their children know their family history, the events, the struggles, the joys that made our family grow.  It is just as important for them to know the sacrifices and the successes that their ancestors endured to bring our family to this point.  Also, it is of the utmost importance for them to know their national history, the achievements, failures, victories and defeats of the past, so that they may make informed decisions as citizens of this country.

When the news broke that Osama bin Laden had been captured and executed, one of the television networks went out in the streets  of New York, and asked young people, most of them teenagers who were already in school on September 11, 2001, what they knew about Osama bin Laden.  We watched, speechless and astonished when few could answer the question.  We are not talking here about  some obscure question regarding, say, the War of 1812 - these young people were being asked about the man who had begun the War on Terror during their lifetime.  Osama bin Laden, the most wanted man in the world, the man responsible for that gaping hole at Ground Zero in the city where they live, and they did not know the answer.   Astounding!

What a sad statement on our American youth and our society!  We find that Americans today, especially the young do not place much stock in linking the past to the progress that is achieved in the future. As parents, as grandparents, or simply as Americans, it is our duty to sound those "mystic chords of memory" and to insure that our youth are not ignorant of their past.  It is not to say that one must dwell in the past or cling nostalgically to it. 

As we embrace the future, we must learn to celebrate the past, and use its lessons to our advantage.  In the words of General George S. Patton:  "Prepare for the unknown by studying how others in the past have coped with the unforeseeable and the unpredictable. " 

The past is nothing more than our shared collective memories.  Having an appreciation of them will allow us to make wiser choices as citizens, and more caring and informed  decisions in our private lives.


Two Sisters

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12 Comments:

At May 31, 2011 at 6:15 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Ignorance of history can also bite you in the ass....as it did Obama when he credited his "Irish uncle" and the American Brigade (instead of the Soviets) with the liberation of Auschwitz.

Great commentary, Sister One. Our educational system is doing a great disservice to our young ones in rewriting history in textbooks and classrooms. How can future generations run the world wisely without the right tools to connect the past to the present?

 
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