Living in Parallel Times: Memorial Day Reflections

Quality Insights CEO, Dr. Sven Berg, finds similarities - and hope for the future - in our fight for freedom in the 1770s and our fight against an unseen enemy in 2020.  

As a young person, I didn’t really understand the difference between Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day.  Having served in the United States Air Force for nearly 25 years before coming to Quality Insights, I now have a better understanding. As a Veteran myself, I now understand that Memorial Day honors those who gave more. It honors military men and women who gave their lives for our country. Today, as we fight a different fight against COVID-19, I feel impressed to honor not only members of the U.S. Armed Forces that gave their lives, but also heroes on the pandemic battle front who have given their lives in service of fellow Americans. Perhaps they will have their own day in sometime in the future, but for now, I hope that including them in my thoughts isn’t seen as diminishing the sacrifices of those we traditionally honor on this day.

Whether they fought for freedom’s cause or walked long trails over prairies and mountains, our fore-bearers paid in toil and tears for their inheritance and loved the land on which they lived. It is our heritage and responsibility as recipients of that great heritage to do no less in continuing to contribute to our great nation.  

When traveling to our office in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, I am frequently reminded of what was perhaps the most gloomy, discouraging period of the American Revolution. During the winter of 1776, General Washington’s army was in Winter Quarters at nearby Valley Forge. He had fewer than 10,000 men. They were thinly clad, some half naked, others with no clothing but tattered blankets wrapped around them. “So many were sick as the result of privation,” wrote one commentator. “So many were without coats, blankets, hats or shoes that one wonders how the army held together at all.”  

I see parallels in those fighting against COVID-19 today. They may not be threadbare, but many are underpaid and lack the protective equipment necessary to keep them safe. Many facilities with whom we work are understaffed and feel abandoned. The parallels to Washington and his men continue. He also felt abandoned, not only by the Continental Congress, but also by most of his friends. John Adams had turned against him, so also had Richard Henry Lee. General Gates insulted him by sending reports directly to Congress instead of to him, the superior officer. “Falsehoods most damnable appeared in print, and lies fell like froth from unclean mouths.”

As I envision George Washington at Valley Forge, I am reminded of a scene from Maxwell Anderson’s play in which Washington looks on a little group of his soldiers, shoveling the cold earth over a dead comrade, and says grimly, “This liberty will look easy by and by when nobody dies to get it.” 

Perhaps years in the future when we look back on the Coronavirus pandemic of 2019-2021, our memories of the fear, insecurity, and loss of loved ones, colleagues and friends will have faded, and our health and wellbeing will look easy again. I hope instead, that our memories of the sacrifices made will remain bright and guide our own determination to serve others and make the world around us a better place.

In 1831 the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville visited and found what he considered to be the secret of our genius and power. It wasn’t in our commodious harbors and or ample rivers, not in our fertile fields and boundless prairies, not in our rich mines and vast world of commerce. Instead, he wrote that:

“America is great because she is good,
and if America ever ceases to be good,
America will cease to be great.” 

On Monday, the 20th of March, 1775, a convention of delegates from the several counties and corporations of Virginia met in the old church in the town of Richmond. Although they recited with great feeling the series of grievances under which the colonies lad labored, and insisted with firmness on their constitutional rights, they gave, nevertheless, the most explicit and solemn pledge of their faith and true allegiance to his Majesty King George III, avowing their determination to support him with their lives and fortunes. They could not part with the fond hope that peaceful days would again return.  As William Wirt described it in his work, Great Epochs in American History:

“The body of the convention cast around ‘a longing, lingering look’ on those flowery fields on which peace, and ease, and joy, were still sporting.

“[Patrick] Henry [a delegate] saw things with a steadier eye and a deeper insight. …The gulf of war which yawned before him was indeed fiery and fearful; but he saw that the awful plunge was inevitable. He rose at this time with a majesty unusual to him… and with all that self-possession by which he was so invariably distinguished. ‘Mr. President,’ said he, ‘it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth—and listen to the song of that siren, till she transforms us into beasts. …Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of Hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? …It is vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, peace, peace—but there is no peace.  The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almightly God—I know not what course others may take; but for me, give me liberty, or give me death!’

“He took his seat, no murmur of applause was heard. The effect was too deep. After the trance of the moment, several members started from their seats. The cry, ‘to arms!’ seemed to quiver on every lip, and gleam from every eye. Richard H. Lee arose and supported Mr. Henry, with his usual spirit and elegance. But his melody was lost amid the agitations of that ocean, which the master-spirit of the storm had lifted on high. That supernatural voice still sounded in their ears, and shivered along their arteries. They heard, in every pause, the cry of liberty or death. They became inpatient of speech—their souls were on fire for action.” 

Our mission is to bring people and information together to improve health. We envision a time when health is a priority in all communities. This pandemic has laid bare the ongoing underlying societal inequities that are obstacles in our path towards that vision. These social determinants of health come into sharper focus. We can no longer ignore the impact they have on those about us. In the end, more may die from deaths of despair as a result of the pandemic than die from the COVID-19 infection itself. Let us join together to provide hope and do as President Dwight D. Eisenhower so aptly put it: 

“…use our skills and knowledge, and, at times, our substance, to help others rise from misery, however far the scene of suffering may be from our shores. For wherever in the world a people knows desperate want, there must appear at least the spark of hope, the hope of progress—or there will surely rise, at last, the flames of conflict.” 

I am impressed by all that you have done over that past three months to aid those serving on the front lines. It is my hope on this Memorial Day, when we remember the sacrifices made and being made for us, that we not spend too much time casting a longing, lingering look on the so called “good old days;” but, seeing clearly the challenges ahead, honor those sacrifices, become impatient of speech, and continue to find ourselves filled with fire for action.   

Please allow me to end with words penned by the poet Ralph Waldo Emmerson:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
              Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
              And fired the shot heard round the world.

Spirit that made those spirits dare
              To die, and leave their children free,
Bid time and nature gently spare
              The shaft we raise to them and thee.

(Pictured is an engraving from 1882 of George Washington praying at Valley Forge during the American Revolutionary War.)

5/20/2020 12:00:00 AM | 5 comments


Amy W.
Thanks for the wonderful reminders of the sacrifices so many have made to ensure that our country is great because it is good. I am encouraged by your thoughts.
5/26/2020 2:49:47 PM
Crystal Welch
Enjoyed reading this post. Thanks Dr. Berg.
5/26/2020 10:18:03 AM
Beckey Cochran
Great blog on the meaning of Memorial Day, the history and how we can honor all those who have served to defend our country.
5/21/2020 5:18:03 PM
Rox F
Very uplifting - forward focus.
5/21/2020 10:36:46 AM
Lisa G
Thanks for the reflection, Dr. Berg. Great insights and words of wisdom.
5/21/2020 8:59:12 AM
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Quality Insights CEO, Dr. Sven Berg, finds similarities - and hope for the future - in our fight for freedom in the 1770s and our fight against an unseen enemy in 2020.