Life and death mark Memorial Day. You can’t think of one without the other.


And underlying Memorial Day is a basic question: What is the meaning of life?


But if there is nothing worth dying for, can there be any meaning in life at all?


For Lincoln, it was America’s existence: “A nation conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The life and death battle of the Civil War tested “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”


That Gettysburg Address was Lincoln’s twofold attempt to give meaning to the growing mountain of lives lost on the battlefields and to his own life as well. Not everyone saw it that way then. For some it was a meaningless and wanton war of wasted lives. But where would we be today if the Union had not been preserved?


Americans have always risen to the occasion to protect fellow Americans in times of crises and war. They have risked their lives with no guarantees. And not all who went forward to protect our nation returned.


Flags fly across America in abundance on two days: Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. They are the physical symbols that remind us of who we are and what we will stand and die for. And over the decades countless Americans have dedicated and given their lives fulfilling Lincoln’s hope that this “nation might live.”


Cemeteries are more than just a place of burial. They call to mind the lives of those who have gone before us. From many of those lives we draw inspiration and courage to protect the nation’s well-being and seek the common good.


A meaningful life has a price. There is risk and uncertainty in pursuing causes that are greater than us. They require foregoing some self-interests for the good of family, community and nation. They also require overcoming fear, called courage.


Otherwise fear and pure self-interest spirals down into a self-centered life.


COVID-19 is a visceral example. It’s a virus that can kill, is little understood and seems to strike anyone anywhere. And presently there is no certainty of either a preventative or a cure. It has generated not just a panic but a pandemic.


Fearing the virus as a death warrant, people naturally seek protection through quarantine and social distancing. But as social beings we can’t live well without social contact and support.


Fortunately, many risk their lives to protect others: healthcare professionals, first responders, essential workers and volunteers from faith communities and charitable institutions. Others provide food and comfort to the homebound. It’s what Americans freely do.


The Continental Army’s greatest enemy and fear was smallpox (variola major) with a death rate of 30%. It threatened the destruction of the entire army. Yet battles continued. If all the soldiers had been quarantined, the Revolutionary War would have been lost.


At his first inauguration, Franklin D. Roosevelt told the American people that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He asked for the “understanding and support” of the American people. And he got it.


What makes America work is voluntary compliance and a willingness to collaborate and cooperate for the common good. That’s what got us through the Depression and World War II and every national crisis. It’s exactly what’s needed today.


Cultural reminders like today are as necessary as daily bread for a healthy mind, body and spirit. That’s why there are set holidays, sacred symbols and rituals. We ignore or expunge them at our own peril.


Yes, there are things worth giving our lives to and even dying for. Many graves have a story of those who devoted and risked their lives for their love of family, country and God. We have benefited from the fruits of their labors. And for this we ought to be grateful. For the task of the living is to leave a better, gentler, and kinder nation for those who will come after us.


That is what makes America. And it is why we have a Memorial Day.


John F. Gilligan, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and president emeritus of Fayette Companies/Human Service Center. He lives in Groveland.