COMMEM OR A’ TION n. kə-ˈme-mə-ˌrāt [from con memoro, Latin]

Posted on November 16, 2014

johnson002Generally I detest using a dictionary. It’s so much easier to skip over an unknown word than to look it up.

Today such Philistinism – ok, look it up; it means ignorance — is inexcusable. There was a time when if you didn’t understand a word you crossed the room, lifted a 20 pound tome of Webster’s Third Dictionary off the shelf, heaved it on to a rickety table and rifled its tissue-thin pages as the six inch binding shifted like a heaving sea.

Today one need only double click on the irritating word and – voila – instant definition courtesy of a search engine.

Easy enough. But today I am engrossed by a conundrum. Alright, I’ll keep it simple. I am confused.

Last week I attended two gatherings. The first was the thirtieth anniversary celebration of a mentor of mine. I have only known Peter for ten years and in that time he has had an enormous impact on the way in which I approach business problems. With simple, supportive, humane and provocative questions he has helped guide me to creative and fair solutions.

Appreciating the impact that Peter has had on my life it was a surprise to learn that he had been having a similar impact on others for two decades previous to my meeting him. I have always had enormous respect for my teachers. But until last Sunday it probably never occurred to me that their lessons were not intended for me alone. Like a rapt fan that thinks the singer is singing only to him, I think I reveled in being the teacher’s pet. I guess I now have to share that privilege with Peter’s hundreds of other mentees.

Several people walked to the podium and showered Peter with well-deserved praise. Peter blushed with embarrassment and wiped his eyes from time to time. When he rose to thank everybody he was no less modest than he normally is. One of the lessons he taught me was to lead by listening, not by speaking. To be authentic. And to remember that character counts more than accomplishments — in business, as in life.

“We are human be-ings,” Peter always says, “not human do-ings.”

At the end of this commemoration of Peter’s 30 years I shook his hand and reminded him that he had a meeting with me on Tuesday. “Don’t think this is a retirement celebration,” I said. “A lot of nice things have been said. Now it’s time to get back to work.”

The following Saturday I attended a different gathering. This, too, was a commemoration, not of thirty years but of thirty-five years. But there was to be no meeting on Tuesday.

Angela was a remarkable woman. Straight out of college she went to work as an intern for a non-profit organization in Bridgeport, CT, helping to resettle political refugees who are seeking asylum from war-torn conflicts or are victims of torture or of sexual trafficking.

Angela quickly rose through the ranks and at the age of thirty was named executive director. She was a natural leader. She inspired her colleagues with her focus, warmth and humor. She communicated brilliantly with her board and with contributors. And she stretched herself, never satisfied, acquiring new skills, taking on new challenges.

Most of Angela’s clients, the beneficiaries of her agency’s work, do not speak English when they arrived in Connecticut. But gratitude has no language barrier. They are all deeply appreciative of what Angela’s team does for them. Many go on to earn their college degrees, to start successful businesses, to raise families and to put their kids through school.

Angela suddenly took ill – one of those illnesses for which there are no words of comfort that can possibly sound sincere because the diagnosis is so dire. Angela fought valiantly. True to character she worked tirelessly to the end. Thirty-five years young with so much accomplished and so much to give.

Like Peter, we commemorated Angela. Her best friend read a letter that was a testament of friendship. Her brother captured her personality. Another speaker spoke of her determination to change the world. Unlike Peter, Angela could not acknowledge the tribute.

I left Angela’s service grasping for an explanation. Each of these wonderful people we commemorated in much the same way, remembering their achievements, basking in their attention, even laughing at their humanity. How could each of them be the focus of a commemoration – and only one have a meeting on Tuesday.

I may have found an answer in the etymology of the word “commemorate.” According to the dictionaries the word comes from the Latin compound: “con” meaning “together” and “memora” meaning memory. We come together to remember.

But still I was perplexed. In one ceremony I felt joy; in the other only a sense of emptiness.

It was at this point that I turned to Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1776. There I found this definition:

“An act of publick celebration; solemnization of the memory of any thing.”

“Celebration” seemed peculiar in this context. Today celebration connotes joyfulness. But if we look at Johnson its meaning may have changed. Johnson has three definitions of “celebrate,” one of which caught my eye:

“…3. To mention in a set or solemn manner, whether of joy or sorrow.”

So there was my answer. A commemoration can bring us together to share our joy. And a celebration can break our hearts with sorrow.

I can thank Dr. Johnson’s dictionary for giving me a moment to pause. The etymology was not an irritating distraction after all.

We can never know what life will throw at us. But we can always take a moment to remember. To praise. To commend. To perform the solemn rites. And to experience the joy and sorrow.

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