21 Steps – 21 Seconds – 21 Steps

The choreography of reverence and honor.

For those of you who have read any of my earlier posts, you probably know that I get all verklempt – downright weepy – at the power and beauty of rituals and ceremonies. Even the corny ones take us out of our daily mindset and thrust us into community.

Cultures and communities have long used the arts to help members focus – and FEEL – together. Celebrating births, graduations and weddings. Giving awards for success and efforts. Religious traditions bring us together to strive to be better people – and better souls.

But the idea that a community or nation can ask members to give their lives for the greater good – well – that is a very big ask. And yet, the world over, we see that kind of sacrifice. Cultures raise their children to see the heroic nature of joining the military or law enforcement or … the list goes on.

For those of you who have visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, I know you, too, have been touched. Here we see the pinnacle of precision and reverence. Absolutely every detail is controlled because the sentinels and the observers are in a very sacred space and moment – trying to express boundless gratitude for the ultimate gift. Participation at the ceremony is a privilege and any sign of disrespect prompts immediate attention.

Today, all Sentinels are volunteers. They are all between 5-foot-10 and 6-foot-four, with a proportionate weight and build. They know the grave locations of nearly 300 veterans, and they are able to recite seven pages of Arlington Cemetery history word for word. They walk at a pace of 72 beats per minute, and they spend hours practicing their steps with a metronome. They get haircuts twice a week. (See article below)

For 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, guards whose uniforms show no sign of rank, take 21 steps, pause for exactly 21 seconds and return the 21 steps. After another 21-second pause the process begins again. Every detail – the precise choreography, the impeccable uniforms, the stylized rituals – are all designed to help us feel what we need to feel.

Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, 21 Steps at a Time

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  1. Dawn Sanderlin dawnhappynote@gmail.com and says:

    I was there. It was a very reverent experience.