I’ll set the stage for you.
Smells of sweat and cheap beer hastily drunk and the cacophony of of over 90k fans envelop me as the loudspeaker begins to play “Livin’ On A Prayer” – the Bon Jovi anthem that has strangely become dear to most LSU fans, who shout the words. Even though they sing gruffly and unmelodically, it doesn’t matter. “Take my hand, and we’ll make it, I swear” speaks to college students, and they resonate with a manner beyond words or rules.
I park my wheelchair on the first row of the student section–the handicap-accessible area–and my friend grabs a metal folding chair and sits next to me. My hopes are high that she’ll end up being more-than-a-friend, since she traveled from our undergrad college to the college where I was getting a graduate degree to hang out with me for the weekend. That was a hopeful time, I guess. (Spoiler alert- nothing beyond friendship ever happened.)
The mumbling of the crowd is overtaken by the marching onto the field of the Golden Band from Tigerland. After the usual crowd-riling songs, they settle, spread onto the field like symmetrical candles on a centenarian’s orderly birthday cake. After the announcement of the National Anthem, they begin the introductory notes. The spectators fall silent.
The LSU marching band does an awesome rendition of the song. The most dramatic moment is right before the final question: “…does that star-spangled banner yet wave…?,” when a couple of military jets woosh in synchronicity over the stadium, providing a melodramatic and thunderous rumble. It’s a pointless and wasteful exercise, but it’s so damn cool.
Before the testosterone-pumping jets pass over the stadium, in the early chords of the song, I glanced to the left at my friend. She’s still seated in her folding chair, but with her hand over her heart, mirroring my own position in my wheelchair.My immediate reaction is disgusted shock: How dare she remain seated? I only did so because it was my only option. My Republican nesting grounds and the painstaking flag-handling methods I’d learned as an Eagle Scout-status had trained me to feel offended.
After kick-off, I, slightly aggravated, but more perplexed, asked why she didn’t stand for the National Anthem. She said, without hesitation, “I just wanted to be the same as you.”
I hadn’t thought of that.
It’s still goosebump-inducing to me that my automatic reaction to her my friend’s stance during the national anthem was one of dismay and annoyance. I hadn’t even considered that it wasn’t out of laziness and disrespect. She was acting out of solidarity with me, and I couldn’t even see it. That made a profound impact on me.
As the political climate loses its collective mind over some not standing at attention during the national anthem, I’m reminded of this story, and how I was so eager to judge the outward acts of seeming disrespect. She and I were in the same position, but she was even more mindful of what she was doing than I was–and for what reason.
Maybe the reason some don’t adhere to the status quo signs of outward respect is not disrespect at all. And maybe asking them their reasons why would be more empathetic, more human, than making any outward signs of reverence mandatory.
Because doing that would chip away at freedom. Not freedom to disrespect, but freedom to be nuanced in order to point to truth. In my friend’s case, it was solidarity. She chose to bravely go against the status quo to join me.
“O, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave / O’er the land of the free / And the home of the brave?”
That is a profound question to think about; it’s a great way to end a song. And this letter.
Matt Lafleur is associate editor of Sick Pilgrim and an ambassador for FARA, the Friedrich’s Ataxia Research Alliance. We affectionately call him Pest, because he bugs us in all the right ways.