Today is Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. It is not a federal holiday, but flags across the country are flown at half-staff in remembrance of the 2,043 service members and civilians killed on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese made a surprise attack on U.S. military installations on the island of Oahu.
A few weeks ago I was there. For several days — as a member of the Georgia delegation to the National Humanities Conference — I listened to stories from native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders about open ocean navigation and traditional medicine. I visited a reconstructed worker’s village that told the history of the sugar cane plantation industry and watched a native welcome ceremony. I walked both the exclusive beaches of Waikiki and the hills of the Kalihi Valley, an area outside Honolulu with the largest concentration of low-income housing in the state. And I was amazed at the breadth and depth of us, the conglomeration of people who are Americans.
Then, on the next to last day of the trip, I went to Pearl Harbor. It is a quiet place. It is, despite the movement of crowds of people, a still place. And, despite the stillness, it trembles with something like sacred energy.
I read some of the plaques, some of the names. You cannot read them all. It would take days. It would break your heart.
I stared at the museum exhibits, the black and white photos of ships and planes and people, people with faces. Faces that bore resemblances to somebody somewhere. Faces that had no idea what was about to happen within days of their staring into the camera.
I stood on the USS Arizona Memorial, that stark white bridge-shaped monument built over the ship that remains where she fell, submerged in about 40 feet of water just off the Coast of Ford Island. I looked down into the water at the sunken decks of the ship that is the grave for 1,102 American servicemen.
The irony was not lost on me: my visit to Hawaii that had been for the purpose of celebrating the humanities was ending with a look at what happens when we lose sight of our humanity.
Tomorrow is the second Sunday in Advent. Like Pearl Harbor Day, it comes around once a year. It is worth noting, though, that this year the two days are back to back. The day on which the worst of us was manifest in death and destruction, the day that President Franklin Roosevelt correctly proclaimed would live in infamy, is followed immediately by the day on which those of us who believe, as Frederick Buechner did, that the worst thing is never the last thing, will light the candle of hope.
Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day asks us to look toward the past. The second Sunday in Advent asks us to hope for the future. They are not contradictory requests. They are not oppositional directives requiring a choice of one or the other. They are, instead, a single manner of living held in tension, held together by the hinge of a single moment — this moment.
Remember as you hope. Hope as you remember. The worst thing is never the last thing.