I must be honest, when I was asked to write something for Felix & Sage Psychology about the way ANZAC Day 2020 will be harder and different for many Australians, I felt at a bit of a loss. As a South African and a newcomer to Australia, having arrived in Melbourne less than 2 years ago, the only meaning of the word “Anzac” I was really familiar with, was with regards to a packet of sweet, dry biscuits which a friend from New Zealand gave me once while I was living in Singapore! I realised how little I know about this day on the Australian calendar, and how the layers of meaning to commemorating this day were still hidden from me. Knowledge is power, I told myself, so thus started my research to find out more…
The conclusion I reached after reading a couple of articles was the following (and I sincerely hope I am getting this right!): ANZAC Day on April 25th is a day of remembrance. It is a solemn day of commemoration. Of not forgetting. Of honouring people from Australia and New Zealand who lost their lives, not only in 1915 on the battlefields of Europe, but also in subsequent wars and peacekeeping efforts. To call ANZAC day a “celebration” sounds shallow and frivolous… much more, it is a day of “turning inwards”, of quietly pondering the price of war and the value of individual lives. And even though this is a solemn, quiet ritual, it is usually not done alone. Its power lies in the fact that it has become a public rite, something thousands of people do in groups. Dawn services, parades and marches implicitly mean that meaning is created by doing the remembering not alone, but together.
This year will be different. The coronavirus has changed everything. This year’s war is not against soldiers of another country, but against a tiny, invisible germ that has the potential to claim countless lives in our beautiful country and all over the world. The term “social distancing” will probably win the contest as the most-used new expression in 2020 – sadly so. By staying home, we are giving up much of what creates meaningful living, a sense of identity, and a feeling of having purpose. One of the public rituals we will have to forego this year is ANZAC Day. The “size of the loss” will of course differ according to how much value each person normally places on the commemoration of this day. For some, it will hardly be a loss at all as they are fairly indifferent to it. For others, the loss will be a heavy blow. It is for these ill-affected people that the rest of this blog will probably be more meaningful.
Naturally social distancing robs us of the comfort of normal cultural rituals… but it also opens the door to finding more intimate, personal and even creative ways of walking our own journeys with regards to honouring the sacrifices of our country’s military men and women. For some, this might mean stepping out on their driveways and balconies to observe a few minutes of respectful silence at 6am on 25 April. It might mean watching the Australian War Memorial’s service on TV (broadcasted on ABC at 5.30am). It might mean visiting the RSL Anzac Spirit website to look at some of the activities that are posted to help families feel part of a community on ANZAC Day.
For others who are not so much inclined to joining big group activities, finding a small meaningful ritual to perform at home, maybe with the other members of your household, will be more fitting. This could be lighting a candle, embroidering or painting poppies to display in windows, listening to a specific song or piece of music, cooking a special meal or planting a tree or flowering shrub in honour of those who have lost their lives in military service. It might mean rummaging through old photos, or talking about old family stories, or ringing up a grandparent or great-grandparent. It might mean teaching kids the value of remembering. It might mean finding new ways to reconnect to a shared past, and a shared sense of identity.
When disappointment and sadness for the loss of ritual loom large, hold on tightly to your expectation that in years to come, ANZAC Day rituals will probably return to normal. We would only have skipped one year of “normal ANZAC Day” commemorations. In 2021, 2022, 2023 we will again find joy (and maybe even more joy!) in being able to commemorate in the decades-old way we feel comfortable with. In such a way we can “unhook” ourselves from the lived reality in 2020 when we take a birds’ eye view from above the timeline. We can see that we will not be stuck in this moment. There will be movement again, there will be change again.
Furthermore: if you are grieving the loss of your normal ANZAC Day rituals, know that you are not alone. Many others in Australia and New Zealand are struggling with being unable to go through their normal way of commemorating this day. Even when we are remembering privately, we can know we do so together with others. We can still have a sense of solidarity and mutual support, albeit in a different way.
Maybe, if we imagine ourselves 10 or 20 years into the future, looking back to 2020 and specifically ANZAC Day, we will find ourselves not filled with bitterness and resentment because of normal cultural rituals that were interrupted, but grateful for new, deeper, more intimate and connected ways that we have created to remember and honour deeply… alone but together.
For me this will be my first “real” ANZAC Day. And while I will probably still not feel a deep emotional connection to the day or its rituals, on the 25th of April I will stand in solidarity with my community to remember those from all countries who lost their lives in all wars. I will also remember their mourning mothers and fathers, grandparents, siblings and children back home – whether that home was Australia, Germany, South Africa, Vietnam, Afghanistan, East Timor, Japan, China, Singapore or any other country. I will remember that every life is precious. That living and breathing is a gift. That there is one humanity. And that we are all connected.
Felix & Sage Psychology