Single Words Part III: Honor

All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope.

-Winston Churchill-

The Congressional Medal of Honor

Every time I heard someone quote the Fifth Commandment when I was a kid, my skeptical streak woke up ready to fight. “Honor thy mother and father” seemed like a trick played by parents on all us kids who wanted to spend the night at a friend’s house, only to have Mom and Dad squash the plans. It hovered over every argument, every chore left undone, every utterance of “because I said so.” Honoring thy mother and father was a parent’s get-out-of-jail-free card, a trap, a catch-all for kids’ misbehavior, and a way to keep control even in the face of unreasonable orders to eat all the vegetables on the plate or turn off the television before finding out if Scooby and the gang would solve the mystery of the ghoul haunting the theme park. I grew older, but no less frustrated by Big Number Five. I wondered about abusive parents and all the pain and misery they caused and whether or not a child who defied them would be guilty of failing to honor their tormentors. It seemed such a cruel arrangement, a rule that would produce as much suffering as anything else.

The easy (at least it seems easy now) response to my childish thinking is that I had the definition of the word “honor” all wrong. I confused honor with blind obedience and then used my own confusion as an excuse to act like a brat whenever I felt like it. This is one of the great “benefits” of being a skeptic: the easy and endless rationalization of abhorrent behaviors.

I’d like to think that twenty-six year-old me has a little better grasp on things (no guarantees, though), but I realize that some of that childishness I displayed wasn’t wasted. As a kid, I almost always thought of honor as something you did; I understood the word primarily through its function as a verb, but as I grew older, I became more worried about honor’s status as a thing. What was honor? How did you get it? Who deserved it? This, it turns out, is a largely fruitless line of questioning because honor doesn’t become a thing until someone, somewhere, acts to honor someone or something else. The verb always precedes the noun. And so the more appropriate line of questioning is something like: How do I honor other people? What or who warrants honor?

The answer to the first question is easier than you might think. There is no need to throw a gala, a banquet, or an awards ceremony. There need be no red carpet or bustling paparazzi. It’s easy to imagine that spectacle and honor are somehow connected because so often when we see the former we are asked to assume the latter is happening. Mostly, though, bombastic ceremonies are concerned with exorbitant self-congratulation, not honor. So what does real honor look like in action? I think it looks a lot like humility. Or rather, it looks a lot like the results of humility. To honor someone, we must first place our desires to be known and celebrated and admired to the side and lift up somebody else’s achievements, character, or will. Without humility, this is not possible. We cannot ever truly honor someone else if we are primarily concerned with our own interests. Knowing this now makes it easy to see why, as a kid, I felt so oppressed by the Fifth Commandment. I only cared about getting my way, about everything playing out according to my plan. This isn’t shocking, I know; It’s difficult for most seven year-olds to take the long view, I would bet, but in a way I’m glad that I acted that way when I was young because it gives me something horrible to compare myself to every time I act that way now. I’m constantly fighting the pride that keeps me from duly honoring my wife, my son, and just about everyone else I know.

The answer to the second question is more complex, or maybe it only seems that way because the question itself is misleading. A lot of us (definitely me, even though I’m the one writing this) are under the impression that, to paraphrase Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven, “deserve’s got something to do with it.” It’s easy to get caught playing the tit-for-tat game when it comes to honor. We think someone must show us honor before we return the favor, or prove themselves worthy in our eyes before we grant them the privilege of our esteem. But this makes us do a couple of misguided things. First, we’re constantly keeping mental tabs on who “deserves” honor, holding it back like valuable currency, only spent on those who give us something we value first. This behavior distorts a real sense of what honor is. It isn’t something you exchange for a favor, but something offered by a person who understands their own flaws and lets that understanding guide their interactions. Second, we start honoring the wrong people: sports stars, actors, musicians, and a whole slew of other people we haven’t met. That isn’t to say that there aren’t honorable celebrities, only that we mostly honor them for the generic kind of value they have by virtue of their fame. We see attention and money thrown at them and think that because of what they receive from our culture, that they must be given honor as well. Maybe, but not simply because of their status. Just because they’ve been on the cover of more magazines than the 19 year-old girl who serves you with a smile at T.G.I.Fridays, even when you complain about the portion of sweet potato fries you ordered, doesn’t mean they deserve to be honored.

The Fifth Commandment makes a lot more sense to me now, because I understand that honor is a choice we make to put others before ourselves, and in so doing show them that they are, despite their flaws, valued. This does not mean that we must suffer silently at the hands of abusive people, as eight year-old me would’ve thought, because to do this is to betray those who truly care for us, those people who seek to honor us, despite our flaws, and show us that we are valued. And a person who treats us like that? That’s a person worthy of honor.

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Categories: A First Faint Gleam

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