It's not about you

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This Nov. 11, it seems we have more reasons than usual to remember the fallen.

With 2014 marking the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, Remembrance Day ceremonies already promised to garner special attention in Canada.

Add to that recent events in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, and Ottawa — where two members of the Canadian Forces were killed in October — and it seems more pertinent than ever to consider what exactly we’re commemorating.

When I heard that Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, a soldier from my hometown of Hamilton, had been fatally shot in front of Ottawa’s National War Memorial, part of me wanted to feel sorry for myself.

My social networking pages were flooded with personal posts of Cirillo’s homecoming by friends and family back in Hamilton, which hit me harder than any media coverage. I felt entitled to mourn his death more than all of my peers.

Other than a shared hometown, though, Cirillo and I don’t have much in common. I’ve never experienced the rigours of military training or shared in the camaraderie of an infantry regiment like the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

Most importantly, I’ve never sacrificed my own safety in the name of protecting my country, nor lost someone I loved to such an end.

I quickly realized that this was a problem — not just for me, but for the many Canadians who reacted to last month’s atrocities by appropriating grief that’s not necessarily ours to bear.

We need to differentiate between autobiographical memory and collective memory.

Collective memories are memories of events not personally experienced but passed on through cultural conventions like monuments, public ceremonies and other commemorative practices for honouring the dead.

We acquire our beliefs and attitudes towards war through such memories, which are too often idealized and softened in order to console those suffering from loss.

Such practices make it clear that collective memory can be problematic.

Not only do they mask the real horrors of war, but by allowing us to lay claim to memories that aren’t always ours, these conventions dishonour the men and women who sacrifice themselves to make this country a safer place.

Collective memory makes it possible and permissible for civilians to impose their own emotions, beliefs and values on events they didn’t experience — and to overlook those of the soldiers who did.

The tragedies that took place should inspire sympathy in those of us who’ve never experienced a loss related to war or the military.

However, we should all make an effort on Remembrance Day to listen and absorb the stories we hear, rather than to react to them selfishly and without restraint.

Christine is one of the Journal’s Copy Editors. She’s a fourth-year English major.

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