Associated Press
Arlington National Cemetery.

Memorial Day is intended as an opportunity to pause and look back upon the sacrifices made by those in military service. It is also an opportunity to look forward, and to assess the state of our current affairs, as individuals and collectively as a nation.

We look to the past because we know it has laid the foundation for the present, just as we are now laying the foundation for the future. The original Memorial Day was set aside as a day of mourning for those who died in one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Subsequent generations have taken the holiday as a time to pay homage to those who died in the many military conflicts since.

It is important to recognize the services rendered by those engaged in battles which invariably were joined under the premise of such action being necessary to preserve our basic interests, our individual freedoms — in short, our way of life. As such, it is fitting to use this Memorial Day to take some measure of the current state of life in America.

Are these the best of times, or are they the worst of times? Perspectives will vary, but they are neither. Virtually every generation sees its time as a critical juncture of history. The more relevant question is, are we satisfied with the path we are laying for the generations that will follow?

As a nation, are we committed to the principles that have allowed the country to thrive, in relative terms, as a place of liberty and opportunity? As individuals, are we committed to the basic values that have allowed us, over time, to thrive as individuals, families and communities?

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We are at a unique time, when discourse over these questions is loud and constant, magnified and sometimes distorted by the ubiquitous mass media. There are sharp ideological divides on virtually every issue relevant to our social, political and economic interests. It is easy to look upon the present as a time of fracturing, and of dissipation of traditional mores and institutional values.

The origins of the first Memorial Day, however, offer reasons for optimism. It came about amidst the greatest fracturing in the country's history, coming close to the dissolution of the nation itself. The holiday, known then as Decoration Day, marked a symbolic moment in which the nation mourned its losses and began the process of moving on, moving forward.

During the long weekend that marks the onset of a new season, that is a lesson worth remembering.