I don’t get a chance to blog much anymore, but today, in the midst of my work, I happened upon this online video. (Strangely enough, it is a British supermarket ad – here is the story of the making of the ad).
The story it tells took me back more than a decade and caused me to put my work on pause to hold the memory.
The year was 2003, and I was in Belgium to run a marathon with the Canadian Arthritis Society’s Joints in Motion program. That year the society had teamed up with the Royal Canadian Legion to bring both veterans and runners to take part in a marathon that wound through Flanders Fields, past war memorials and farmers fields where plows still regularly unearthed scattered bones. Participants ran or walked to honour either someone with arthritis or a war veteran. Some came looking for the graves of relatives lost in the war.
Two days before the marathon, we took a tour of Flanders Fields, which included a visit to the Essex Farm Cemetery where John McCrae wrote his famous poem; Langemark German war cemetery, with its mass comrades grave of 24,917 servicemen and another of 3000 school children; and Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth cemetery, holding almost 12,000 stones mark and a memorial wall listing the names of 35,000 soldiers whose remains were never found.
As I walked the endless rows of identical white tombstones, each memorializing a precious, irreplaceable life, and ran my fingers over the lists of names etched in stone, tears flowed freely. Most of these soldiers were mere frightened boys. I began to feel the weight of human sacrifice and enormity of the loss.
Later, we visited the ‘In Flanders Fields Museum’, and I wandered aimlessly through the displays, no longer able to take in more depictions of this political monstrosity we call war. Then I found myself standing in front of two pairs of soldiers. They faced each other, hands outstretched; two British, two German. The diorama depicted a Christmas truce on the battlefield – a moment when differences fell away and men reached out to each other as their own true vulnerable selves. I stood there, unable to move. Then I began to sob.
Here was a gift: a reminder that even amidst the direst of circumstances, the human spirit – and our inner desire for compassion and connection –- can quietly rise, courageous and unbeatable. This gift is called hope.