It’s Veterans Day. Today, all across America, wreaths will be laid, speeches will be given, thank-you-for-your-services uttered, and, in some towns and cities, parades will be held. While these traditional forms of showing respect for veterans’ sacrifices are great, let’s also be honest: most of us do not partake in any of them in any meaningful way.
Occasions like Veterans Day are at root a celebration of the extraordinary deeds of ordinary citizens bound by common purpose in extraordinary times. President Woodrow Wilson spoke of allowing all Americans to “… be filled with solemn pride in the heroism” of their fellow citizens when he first proclaimed Armistice Day, suggesting that the act of honoring yesterday’s heroes is partially an exercise in inspiring the heroes we will need tomorrow with living examples of the noble, beautiful and true.
This is a holiday about the latent heroism in all of us. Rather than using it as an occasion to perceive or treat veterans as abstractly, unattainably different from ourselves, a more fitting way to commemorate this Nov. 11 might be to rekindle the bonds of kinship we share with them.
Instead of launching into the seasonal jeremiad older guys like me are prone to, bemoaning the downfall of patriotism, discipline and the American Way, I am instead going to content myself with a simple but earnest request:
This Veterans Day, as best as you are able, do something so hard that it makes you confront your weaknesses, something so taxing it makes you want to quit, and do it in remembrance of others’ sacrifices. In other words — for those who can — go to the gym.
The suggestion is neither as snarky or bizarre as it might seem at first blush; a healthy plurality of my fellow service members routinely conduct workouts specifically designed to commemorate the service and sacrifice of our forebearers. The most well-known of these are the Hero WODs (“Workouts of the Day,” for those of you who have successfully avoided incorporating CrossFit’s lexicon into your everyday language), workouts explicitly designed to honor a fallen comrade in arms. If CrossFit strikes you as either too dangerous or too cultish, you could row 9500 meters for the approximate number of Yale students and alumni commemorated on Beinecke Plaza who fought in World War I, or you could do 100 push-ups in honor of the centennial of Veterans Day.
Run, bike or WOD, the ultimate aim is to push yourself to the point where you want to quit — but to do so in the very specific context of an activity rich in meaning. A confession here: I quit all the time. I frequently tell myself that I do not really need to complete the last mile of the run or finish the last set in a dead lift circuit. Graduate school is taxing, and I give myself a participation trophy more often than is warranted.
But the days when I win the internal battle against my vanity and foibles are the days that I come closest to being mentally capable of comprehending sacrifice as a lived experience, instead of as a mental or emotional construct. My quit rate is significantly lower when my workout is about honoring someone else’s sacrifice.
I am not advocating for the Yale student body to go and injure themselves in pursuit of unrealistically stringent activities; just as most veterans are not Medal of Honor recipients, most of us are not professional athletes.
I am not suggesting that physical exertion makes one either virtuous or empathetic. Instead, I only suggest that the act of deliberately pushing past one’s preconceived limits, in remembrance of others and in a nature faintly reminiscent of their struggles, makes one better able to understand what their sacrifices mean. Sweat has value quite apart from the endorphin rush.
I would also suggest to readers who cannot partake in physical exercise that they give up some of their time on Veterans Day. We are surrounded by the legacy of our veterans here at Yale, as monuments at East Rock, Long Wharf Drive and the Shops at Yale can all attest to. Take the time — if you have not yet — to pay one of these monuments a visit, perhaps with friends, and ponder over what patriotism, valor and heroism mean to you — and then, think of how they might be construed to mean something to all of us.
What I am ultimately suggesting is that, this Veterans Day, partake in a measure of deliberate toil, pain or meditation before offering a veteran your gratitude for their service. I guarantee the exchange will feel more genuine.
TONY FORMICA is a second-year M.A. candidate at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, and an active-duty Army officer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .