Archive for June 2014

The Appropriateness of Participation

June 10, 2014

The Appropriateness of Participation

April 2012

There is a fascination among Americans today that they want to participate, or feel like they are involved.  This desire seems to be without consideration of (1) what it signifies and (2) its appropriateness.

I recently flew from Honolulu to Atlanta on business.  After landing a solemn flight attendant announced in a trembling voice that today’s flight was special.  The cargo hold contained the remains of a Marine Corp Corporal.  He was recently killed in combat in Afghanistan and was being transferred home for burial.  The deceased’s wife and her mother were accompanying his body.  The passengers were asked to remain seated and permit them to disembark first, continuing their journey unimpeded.  This respectful gesture seemed a small something I could offer to a suffering family for their loss in safeguarding my freedoms.

After the aircraft completed taxiing and opened its doors, a junior enlisted Airman rose from her seat.  Clad in her formal Class A Dress Blues, she hurried forward with her mother.  She looked in her mid-20s, tired, sad, almost haggard.  Beneath red eyes her face seemed set to accomplish the heart-wrenching task before her: burying her husband.  After several rows, scattered and then a full applause filled the aircraft.  Service members, especially junior enlisted members, generally receive the “thank you for your service” from civilians awkwardly; to them, this is just a job.  She seemed very uncomfortable with the attention and sped, just short of a run, off the aircraft.

I looked around bewildered.  The applause seemed congruent with welcoming troops home from combat, eager to see family and familiar comforts; its presence clashed horribly with reality: this was a funeral procession.  Her presence under these circumstances implied pain, loss, and a solemn task best left for late in life.  The applause seemed as inappropriate as a standing ovation while a widow approached her husband’s casket at church.

I ask, why did the passengers applaud, a term that by its very definition means approval or praise1?  Was this because of the awkwardness they felt just sitting there?  Perhaps it was what he or she felt was the right thing to do?  If we offer the parents of a screaming child moments of quiet dignity on a flight, can we offer it to a grieving spouse?  Perhaps the question best question to ask is: what does the widow want in her moments of grief?  If in doubt, perhaps the best thing to do is nothing.

1. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition.