For some reason I spent the last weekend watching two movies centered around World War II. The first was “Hacksaw Ridge.” It was indeed an incredible movie demonstrating how a person can be true to their core values even when there seems to be contradictions between them. In this movie the main character Desmond holds the religious belief that to kill another human being is morally wrong yet he also believes it’s not fair other men must die for the freedom to have such religious beliefs. His pacifist views and patriotic sensitivity collide, yet he is able to reconcile them in a way that permits him to serve the army as a medic. He shows great valor and courage by rushing to the front line of a horrific battle to save wounded men who would have been left behind enemy lines to die.
The second movie I watched was “Saving Private Ryan.” Most everyone knows this story, but perhaps not everyone recognizes it’s another example of a collision of values and beliefs. The characters in this movie want to know why one man’s life (Private Ryan’s) is so important that others must risk theirs to pull him from doing the very job he signed up to do as a soldier in the United States Army. In fact, in the end, because private Ryan refuses to go with them and is determined to do his duty, most of the men sent to retrieve him get killed. The final words of the captain sent to bring private Ryan home are exceptionally powerful. The wounded captain looks at the young private and with his dying breath says to this young man, “Make it count.”
I wonder if that’s not a message we should all embrace. Make it count could be interpreted in many ways, but ultimately what that dying captain is asking of this young private is to live a good life making a positive difference in the world because people have died so that he may live. Many sacrificed it all so he could go home. That’s quite a burden this young man had to carry with him his whole life. The funny thing is, it’s a burden ALL of us really need to carry because if you think about it, many have given their lives so we may live. Our lives are an inheritance from those who lived before us. I’m not just talking about the military men and women who died for our national freedoms, I mean your ancestors, the people from the town, country, and region where you live and were raised. People have gone before us and have scratched out an existence so we can live a better life; people who have given us examples to learn from and traditions to carry on.
I am the son of Italian immigrants and hard working blue collar Americans from Western Pennsylvania. The Italian side of my family gave up the benefit of the human need for consistency and familiarity to embrace a new home where the food, language, ways of interacting with others, and simplest human tasks were foreign and difficult to understand. Coming to the United States with nothing, through hard work in labor jobs and factories they eventually acquired a home and enough wealth to meet the standards of the American middle class. Those blue collar Western Pennsylvanians likewise overcame the American depression and labored in steel mills, factories, and coal mines to become middle class Americans as well. These are the people who gave their lives that I may be who I am. This is my inheritance.
With this inheritance comes a great many good things as well as difficult things many of us want to run from or hide from other people. Alcohol seems to have been a problem in my family, but hard work and sacrifice are part of it as well. Perhaps my family struggles to spread its wings and venture out from their small Pennsylvania home, but they’ve always given me the love, support, and encouragement to chase my dreams. Like all human ventures there’s good and bad that mix together, but in the end, with the grace of God, the good rises to the top.
I guess what touched me most, and what I hope to inspire you to consider in relation to your own life are those words the captain whispered in private Ryan’s ear, “Make it count.” Ask yourself if you’re doing that. Don’t let circumstances dictate what motivates you. The main character Desmond in “Hacksaw Ridge” found a way to live by his values and make life count by sacrificing his safety for his fellow human beings. I frequently ask myself hard questions just to be sure I’m making it count. I ask myself things like, “Am I loving my family enough, my neighbors, and those God placed in my life in a self serving way or in a way that inspires them to be better people?” I ask myself, “Am I developing into a man of character and virtue or squandering the inheritance I’ve received for selfish purposes?” When I die it’s my hope all those good people who lived before me, shaped me into the man I am, and sacrificed so I could live well will be proud of who I’ve become. But more importantly, my hope is those I leave behind will be better people because I was in their lives. After all, making it count isn’t really about the life I live for myself, it’s about how the life I live makes the lives of others just a little better because they spent some time in my company.