SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the movie Saving Private Ryan, be warned that I’m about to reveal the ending.
In Saving Private Ryan, a squad of Army Rangers led by Captain John Miller (played by Tom Hanks) sets off deep into Normandy, France in the wake of the D-Day invasion to find and rescue a single private named James Ryan (played by Matt Damon). All of Ryan’s three other brothers have been killed in action on the same day, prompting military high command to demand a rescue operation to send Ryan home.
Needless to say, everyone involved (including James Ryan) is dumbfounded as to why the military would risk the lives of something like eight people just to rescue one. That’s a big part of the tension at the heart of the movie.
Along the way, almost everyone in Miller’s squad dies trying to (you guessed it) save Private Ryan. Miller himself is hit fatally. In one of the closing moments of the film – and the most powerful – a dying Miller whispers to Ryan, “earn this.”
This sticks with James Ryan his whole life. We don’t see how his life played out, but we can guess. He returns to Normandy with his wife, children, and grandchildren. They all seem to love each other, and that’s no easy feat.
We can assume that – all things being equal – James Ryan “earned it”. He was a good man.
If you aren’t weeping bitterly by this point in the movie, there’s something wrong with you.
Now, what’s left unsaid in the movie is that there is a big problem with any moral system that would insist that the unwanted sacrifices of others imposes any kind of obligation on you. In reality, James Ryan did not *have to* “earn” anything, even with the deaths of Miller and his men. Ryan did not choose to be rescued, and he did not choose to put Miller and his men at risk. Ryan does not exist for their sakes, just as they did not exist for his.
In choosing to live his life with the consciousness of the gift he received – in choosing to “earn it” – James Ryan did live better in the end. Presumably, he took his work more seriously. He was more careful about picking a spouse. He took better care of his children. He avoided doing evil and tried to do good. He’ll be able to come to the end of his days knowing that John Miller’s death wasn’t for nothing.
Clearly there is some power to the idea of “earning it,” and I think that power lies in gratitude.
It’s gratitude – even to the point of humility and awe (if not guilt) – that is a powerful force for transformation. And I think that’s true outside of war and outside of movies.
Like Ryan, all of us have received the gift of the work, sweat, and tears of people who have come before us, from our parents to our grandparents to the earliest humans. We have the comfort, health, freedom, choice, and safety we have because of the untold challenges, difficulties, pain, and doubt of untold numbers of heroes, inventors, artists, businesspeople, athletes, and thinkers over the years. If you can’t imagine or appreciate the scope of that work, you have only to imagine your worst days at work multiplied by several dozen millions.
Some of the gifts we have received may not be ones we want. Good – we have every right to return them. And, like Ryan, we *don’t have to earn anything* – we exist as ends in ourselves.
If we know we rely on the good gifts of the people of the past, let’s not spurn those gifts. If we choose to earn them, we’ll be far more likely to be able to keep them. We’ll be far more likely to be able to give them to the people who come after us.
And let’s use our awed gratitude – one of the most powerful forces available to us – to live better lives and be better people.