As we remember those who fought and died in past wars, we could easily feel like all of this carnage happened in far away places and times, in landscapes sequestered into monastic cells of historical periods where the rest of our life need not tread. Or at least not for more than the morning of November 11th. In Flanders Fields makes clear the fact that symbolic remembrance is not the same as real appreciation of sacrifice: “If ye break faith with us who die. We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields” (Mcrae, online). Wearing a poppy and taking a single moment of silence are only two aspects of Remembrance Day. It behooves us as AU students to take our history seriously lest we lose a sense of our social context as citizens.
Like a bookshelf of unread tomes bought to make the owner appear literary, the reality of our acts and feelings requires an inquiry into the nature of reality itself. Paul Doolan summarizes how reality requires context and, succinctly, a sense that living in the world (and living in world history, wars being the most shattering instances of reality placed in time):
“The next time you’re tempted to suggest that teachers, politicians, or others should focus on ‘real world issues’, ask yourself, whose ideology is being served in the way ‘the real’ is being picked out? In fact, when you use the term ‘real world’ you are speaking nonsense. ‘Real’ can never predicate ‘world’, for what is ‘real’ is produced and exists within the world, not the other way around. And recognising what is real is itself not without problems.” (Doolan, online).
Even the difference between soldier and civilian is tricky; anyone who has an older family member who was on the home front knows that war makes itself real for everyone and that the catharsis of remembering front line fighters aids the unity of all members of society. War and peace are just another binary framework and no matter how many flags or spectrum shades are added the key to reality is either difference and displacement or unity and belonging—and even that is a binary, so what can we really ever say? Sometimes nothing at all, and that’s why Remembrance Day works to allow us to give thanks, not with our brains alone, but with our hearts in moments of silence and gratitude. Where we enact boundaries we forget the reality that our thoughts make our reality and in parallel how our heart feels its way through the cognitive labyrinth of self and society. As the post-punk band Gang of Four once sang: “each day seems like a natural fact, but what we think changes how we act” (Gang of Four, online). Honouring veterans and appreciating our freedom can be an extension of us appreciating the liberty to achieve educational success.
Self and Society: Remembering Those Whose Sacrificed Their Place
War isn’t only a reality that occurs far away. Those who fight and suffer carry their experiences with them with manifest maladies such as PTSD. Likewise, education can be traditional in a classroom or cutting edge in an online forum. Where is the real world or is IRL just a phrase? Things are simpler and cut deeper for real soldiers, though. We at AU, to this end, embody a certain element of Schrodinger’s cat; at each learning moment we can conceivably claim that we’re in two places at once. Our classroom can also be our bedroom for instance. And our bedroom itself can be a crash pad or a love nest or a place to pile up our laundry.
Key to making our world feel like a place where we feel at home is how we define our terms and our selves. Some soldiers, and all veterans, have not been so lucky as to live a carefree life. We are lucky to make our identities out of crepe paper and imagine our subjectivity as an eternal flow. Life is only ever a heartbeat away from ending and, when bullets are around, stable reality takes a pounding too.
To be sure, we all share a sense of creating ourselves within our life’s roles. An authentic sense of reality involves spacing between self and other. On November 11th the distinction between war and peace becomes especially clear. Most of us will probably never be called to literally risk our lives in an overseas war. Yet are we every fully engaged in conflict or fully at peace in society? To preclude one option is to over-estimate the other. Each element of existence may be said to contain the kernel of its opposite. For instance, the battle for good grades is ongoing no matter how many decent or excellent marks we accumulate. And, for so many people, daily life can seem like at least a metaphoric struggle between life and death.
Remembrance Day is powerful because it shines the light on the relative nature of reality; few of us dodge bullets or dive into foxholes, other than perhaps in a video game context as we avoid so-called adult responsibilities. Whereas, unlike every other Holiday with avowed pageantry and peons to family, country, and history, Remembrance Day recollects in our hearts a sadness and loss that we can only reflect upon within our lived realities. That’s why it’s so important to know or speak to some real veterans and to attend November 11th services. What makes service real, and history including our own, is the capacity to pause and reflect. Wherever we are going we will get there differently if we know where we’ve been.
For veterans and their families war was, and is, very real. In a small way this parallels the nature of our education: AU studies are ephemeral in that our keisters remain in situ in the same spots we play on the internet or watch random nature videos. And AU becomes an all-too real battle (though hopefully a fun one) when the crunch of deadlines and the pall of pedagogy casts a shadow over the flighty play of our life. Our freedoms, to study and to live and to think and to speak, are never as free as we might imagine.
Others came before us to establish these often-invisible assumptive apparatuses of civil existence. And, again only in microcosm, the fact that we must apply our proverbial boots to the ground of our studies, illustrates some of this reality. So let’s get down to work; we have great expectations to live up to!