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Wearing a Poppy Isn't About Supporting War - It's About Giving Thanks

11/11/2014 08:22 EST | Updated 01/11/2015 05:59 EST
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"I didn't know you supported war," my friend slyly mentioned after she glanced at the red poppy I had pinned to my winter coat. It was a crisp morning on November 11, 2009. The first snow had fallen, and she was navigating the icy sidewalk better than my icy glare. Perhaps my scarf concealed my annoyed expression, as she pressed on. "Aren't you all about humanitarianism, and global health? Isn't war pretty much the opposite of that? What's with the poppy?"

We had been walking to class, and I was a second-year medical student at the University of Toronto. My friend was inquiring about my decision to wear a poppy: to her it didn't "fit" with the rest of my persona, or at least the persona I was apparently projecting to the world. Her remark was at once bewildering as it was intriguing. It was a question I could not answer, and so it inadvertently became rhetoric, dissolving itself as we reached our warm classroom. Like many of my classmates, I dutifully transferred my poppy from my winter coat to my sweater, above my heart. I spent much of that morning immersed in a pathobiology lecture, learning the intricacies of how a disease can slowly eat away at healthy tissue, while her remark clandestinely gnawed its way through my conscience.

Why was I wearing a poppy? Did I really know what it meant? Unlike many of my friends and classmates, I didn't have any immediate family members that fought in either World War I, World War II, or the Korean War. As a first generation immigrant -- from a war-torn country (Sri Lanka) no less -- was I unknowingly supporting the senseless destruction of innocent lives? My uncle had been a landmine victim during Sri Lanka's civil war; I surely could not support such political violence and its sequelae. Yet, was my velvet and plastic red flower, pinned innocently above my heart, a subliminal message to the world that I did indeed support war? Given my dedication to humanitarian work, did wearing a poppy make me a hypocrite?

Eleven o'clock. Our class of 224 paused for a minute of silence, to remember the fallen soldiers of the great World Wars, and those who have died since. To this day I'm not sure if I lowered my head out of guilt or respect. My heartbeat became faster and louder, as though it desperately wanted to confess my confusion. Was I an impostor amongst my classmates? Shouldn't I have thought it through before I pinned that symbol onto my clothing? I felt almost as though the poppy wanted to leap off my sweater during that silent minute -- to pollinate the class with the echo of my pounding chest. Then that minute ended. We went back to our lecture. The poppy remained neatly in place. My heart slowed down. The gnawing feeling would soon disappear. Ironically, my Remembrance Day inner monologue would be soon forgotten. Until the following year.

November 11, 2010. I had completed a heavy rotation in internal medicine a few weeks prior, and came face to face for the first time with a veteran, during a homecare visit. His name was John (name changed), and he had diabetes and hypertension. He also had some signs of "cognitive decline," the technical name for memory loss. The topic came up during my social determinants of health assessment, when I inquired about his ability to afford homecare services, specifically his personal support worker (PSW). He revealed he received funds through the Ontario Legion; he was a veteran. He trailed off, perhaps a result of his dementia. There were many questions I wanted to ask, but couldn't as a result. That year I wore a poppy to remember the memories John might have lost. That made sense to me, and gave me some of the purpose that I lost after an unanswered question the year before.

For the years after, I wore a poppy reflexively. A yearly exchange between myself and a veteran or a cadet with the Salvation army. No one ever questioned it like that crisp morning in 2009, and so I was not tasked to revisit my rationale. As a physician, I assumed that most people would know it wasn't because I was a fan of war -- killing is the opposite of healing, after all. Yet, at the back of my mind, I still wondered about that remark from 2009.

Over the years I would become more immersed in global health issues, involving myself more deeply in myriad activist movements and humanitarian efforts on campus. Some of my closest friends were indeed very vocal about the political climate at the time, and had piqued my interest as well, particularly as I learned more about the role of physicians in promoting global order. Surely if the field of medicine could find cures for incurable ailments, world peace was an attainable goal. Indeed, for awhile my views had become so skewed to the left they became gauche. In hindsight I realize I had a very simplified view on humanitarianism. Now I see it as a dynamic and evolving process, where a goal such as "peace" is the fruit of novel narratives that subsequently lead to effective action. Naivete and idealism, while saccharine, can be the impediment of bonafide change, which is fostered more often through intellectual discussion where all sides feel heard and understood. Patience and a sound knowledge of both history and contemporary controversy can be incredible assets in such dialogues.

In French, the term for coming up with a witty reply a little too late is "esprit de l'escalier," literally the 'reply one thinks of, on the way downstairs, to the smart retort another might have made in the drawing room'. In my case lets say it was a five-year ascent up the proverbial staircase to truthfully answer my friends question "What's with the poppy?" And it took my friend Lindsay (name changed) to show this to me.

Lindsay and I met this past May during a yoga teacher training course. At first blush, we were both there for the same reasons -- to gain a deeper understanding of yoga, both the postures and the philosophy. Digging deeper though, we were both there to heal. I was simply burnt out -- I had been in school for years and years and found myself in an emotionally demanding residency program that was not entirely aligned with my purpose. She had come from a tour of duty in Afghanistan while in the Navy, and had also participated in a number of humanitarian missions, the largest being in Haiti after the earthquake, after which she was formally diagnosed with PTSD. Lindsay had undergone months of treatment for it, and yoga was a way to return to herself in a more holistic way. She wondered aloud to me once whether her life might have been easier if, like me, she had attended university instead.

While being in medicine and in the Navy defy comparison, we both were used to the pressure of performing well, and with objectivity, while sleep deprived and nutritionally challenged. We connected around the difficulty of building a type of resilience that goes above and beyond the norm, and witnessing humanity in extremis; the emotional consequences of which can be as humbling as they are tortuous.

Lindsay and I had a number of intense conversations, where once we distilled the themes from the narrative, concluded each was simply a reflection of the other's. It was then when I could, for the first time, really understand the sacrifices so many men and women make in war. For the first time I realized that there is no quintessential "veteran" -- they are men and women that span a multitude of ages and experiences, experiences that in some elemental form might be relatable to all of us, if we searched hard enough. The sacrifices are not just the wounds inflicted during battle but in many cases encompass those maladies inflicted onto the mind. We know that these are the hardest to recognize and treat -- the memories, the emotions, the cognitive dissonance that exists when we feel futile even though we are told repeatedly that we made a difference. That feeling of being celebrated while tending to that guilty wonder that we could have done more and given more can persist and fester inside if we aren't mindful of it. Indeed, all of these are relatable sentiments to anyone who practices medicine.

This year I excavated my real reason for wearing a poppy, and this was further inculcated after witnessing how we came together as a nation after the tragic deaths of two Canadian soldiers on our own soil last month. Simply put, taking this time to reflect on the dedication of our armed forces is not the same as blindly supporting war. Remembrance Day is really about being present to the experiences of those who sacrificed their mental and emotional well-being in the name of our country. It's about expressing gratitude to those who gave up their dreams so that the rest of us can pursue ours. Indeed, during a time when our planet is deeply troubled by the twin epidemics of violent insurgencies and a sinister infectious disease, I am reminded that today is as much about remembering as it is about being present, today, with each other.

By engaging in a shared dialogue about our distant and not-so-distant past, we permit a re-envisioning of a more peaceful future, and plant the seeds for a time when the idea of War may become antiquated. To me, today, the poppy represents just that: a commitment to new stories and a collective resilience. After all, while the poppy historically symbolizes the blood of fallen soldiers, it also represents a flower that was able to grow in land too infertile for much else; transforming from a mere community of poppy seeds while simultaneously converting the land into fertile and beautiful possibility.

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