Service at the heart of remembrance: a reflection.

Today is Remembrance Day and with current global events there is an added poignancy and relevance to a day which focuses on remembering those who sacrificed their lives for others and to renewing our focus and efforts on the struggle for peace.

This year the Royal British Region has designated the theme of this years’ Remembrance as ‘service.’ They state:

‘Physical, mental or emotional injury or trauma; the absence of time with loved ones; or the pressures that come from serving, highlight why the Remembrance of service is so important. This year we mark significant anniversaries united by the theme of ‘Service’.

The concept of ‘service’ has been much in my mind in recent times. A few weeks ago, when I was in the family home in Skye, I looked out an old box which contained ‘war medals.’ I knew they were there and in truth when younger they were objects, we used to play with. This was probably the first time, however, that I looked at them seriously and was surprised by what I discovered. They belonged to my paternal grandfather who I knew had fought in the First World War but who never spoke about his experiences. He was even at his best a gruff, strict disciplinarian who to a child who met him infrequently seemed to be quite a source of fear.

What caught me by surprise was the discovery that he had been awarded two First World War medals and it was only when I explored more and chatted to family that I discovered that as a young man he had joined the Royal Navy and had fought in the First World War before then joining the Army and specifically the Lovat Scots where he ended up as a decorated soldier. He ‘’saw service in two services.’ To offer yourself in one service is remarkable in itself but to then transfer to another theatre of war which was even more dangerous struck me as remarkable. Like so many young islanders he left his community to go to distant places with a concept of ‘service’ which was one which sadly led many of his peers to their deaths as the local memorials attest only too clearly. Service to your nation and community which cost many their futures and which rightly those who will have had loved ones in any war or conflict will remember today and tomorrow.

There are numerous meanings to the word service and each of them conveys something about the depth of relationship to and for others. It could be service which once was the act of religious worship or the dedication of a life as part of a religious community; it could be used to suggest the work of an employee in a household (as my late granny who spent years ‘in service’) or more contemporaneously it could be the service you receive from an artisan or the service you receive in a restaurant;  So many meanings for the one word. It is therefore maybe not surprising that the etymology of the word is complex with some scholars suggesting that it is rooted in the Proto-Italic word serwo meaning “shepherd,” and others saying it has the connotation of ‘guarding and looking after’. Both convey a sense of protective care and support. Whatever the origins of the word there is an undoubted sense of a dedicated and focused giving of your ‘self’ to another which lies resonant within service.

I know many people who give and offer service to others. There are few who nowadays are required or who choose to offer service militarily like my grandfather, but there are countless thousands who offer service in smaller ways in their communities and to others.

There are so many unsung volunteers who continually give of their time and talents to support others in a wide range of activities and charities; there are thousands of individuals who every day offer service to a neighbour through simply being there to have a conversation and spend time with them, or for those who are unable to do so, to do their shopping or to take them out. There are hundreds who volunteer in charity shops and foodbanks, and who work for community groups, youth organisations and support groups.

Service seems intrinsic to the best aspects our humanity – the regard for others before a focus on self.

Today I will find a place to sit and be quiet, to think of the service to others which led so many millions to pay the ultimate sacrifice of their life not for a political cause or even a national interest but so that those they loved more than anything could be free, and safe and healthy and what they considered to be true evil would be vanquished.

I will find a place to think of those I knew personally who are no longer here but whose heroism was hidden by their hurt and yet shone forth through their concern and compassion for others.

I will find a place to remember all who across the years gave and still give to others, because for them to be human is to be connected in care in a chord unbreakable, even as they fail to recognise their actions as true human service.

I hope you too can find such a place to remember the service given yesterday, the service still offered, and the service still to come.

I hope to also read afresh the words of the American 19th century poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox whose poem ‘The Two Kinds of People’ still I think rings true with its challenge today:

‘There are two kinds of people on earth to-day;

Just two kinds of people, no more, I say.


Not the sinner and saint, for it’s well understood,

The good are half bad and the bad are half good.


Not the rich and the poor, for to rate a man’s wealth,

You must first know the state of his conscience and health.


Not the humble and proud, for in life’s little span,

Who puts on vain airs is not counted a man.


Not the happy and sad, for the swift flying years

Bring each man his laughter and each man his tears.


No; the two kinds of people on earth I mean,

Are the people who lift and the people who lean.


Wherever you go, you will find the earth’s masses

Are always divided in just these two classes.


And, oddly enough, you will find, too, I ween,

There’s only one lifter to twenty who lean.


In which class are you? Are you easing the load

Of overtaxed lifters, who toil down the road?


Or are you a leaner, who lets others share

Your portion of labor, and worry and care?’


Two Kinds of People – An Ella Wheeler Wilcox Poem

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem from Unsplash.


Donald Macaskill