I don’t recall much about my days as a boy scout but I do remember quoting the “oath” often. One part of it that still stands out to me is the phrase, “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country.” I am not sure any of us in my troop knew what honor meant at that time. I think I assumed it meant that I was serious about God and country. Now, perhaps I have a more mature understanding of the concept.
Honor means integrity in beliefs and actions. In other words, when we act with honor, our actions line up with our beliefs. There is a section of scripture in James that admonishes people to be doers of the Word and not hearers only. That’s it: allowing our inmost convictions to inform our actions and words consistently, regardless of the circumstances. So, honorable people live lives not necessarily to please others but to align with inalterable principles. Thus, I believe that to be honorable, we must have a sense of the absolute, a sense of Truth underlying all that can be known and experienced.
One notable American writer of the 20th Century, William Faulkner, had, in his art at least, a sense of the absolute that registered in his aesthetics as “the old verities of the human heart.” He even went so far as to list those old truths of the heart as love, honor, pride, sacrifice, pity--you know, those attributes that set us humans apart from other creatures on the planet. Here is a section of Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech that is to the point: “[A writer] must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”
Even though the Mississippi genius was writing specifically about the art of storytelling, it seems to me that his admonition fits other aspirant activities as well. A politician, for example, deeply motivated by these principles would not alter views for expediency, right? Similarly, leaders who feel compassion for those they lead will not take chances on damaging their followers in any way. In fact, I believe true leadership sometimes calls for self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.
Self-sacrifice leads to my final point about honor. Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch told Scout that one must walk around in someone else’s skin in learning to be merciful and just. Charles Chestnut’s powerful tale “Mars Jeem’s Nightmare” is about a plantation owner who is miraculously transformed into a slave on his own plantation, thus learning what it means to honor others. Could it be that true honor is defined by the Golden Rule? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.