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  • Writer's pictureMichael Burns

Thoughts on Honor

It is a child’s duty to be obedient, whether to avoid punishment or curry favor. But for a mature man or woman, freed from the threat of punishment, what is it that steers us away from the woeful path of self-indulgence and disobedience?

If we behave in a civilized manner, with the criteria being what’s legal, what’s bound to cost us money in fines and lost time, what may cause our peers to disapprove of our actions, or what can even have us thrown into the very gallows of hell, then are we not still behaving like children? Are we not still being motivated, like children, by fear of punishment?

Or is there something else? Is there something that we sometimes forget about that separates us and makes us aspire to be known as “honorable?" And if so, what is it that makes one an “honorable person?”

In earlier times, we admired and trusted those whose word was their bond. That phrase become so important as to become a cornerstone of modern contract law. The Samurai code of honor admonishes that “a warrior should carefully consider every word that comes out of his mouth.” Is honor simply a matter of keeping ones promises, or is there even more to it than that?

In these times, where high population and mass social communication breeds a sense of anonymity, the lines have been blurred. There are those who move across those media like a demon on ice skates, sowing hatred, exclusion and dismay on whatever site or person may be their target for the moment. These are obviously not honorable people. They are like profligate children who know there is no accountability and no punishment for their actions. Without those things to govern them, they run amok.

Then there are those who are governed by their own code. What is decent, what is right, those are the things they stand for. Something far above what is required by mandate or commandment. But I believe there is an additional element. I also believe it is an honorable person’s duty to infringe upon no one, be an unassailable vault of secrets disclosed by those who trust, a keeper of a special, almost indecipherable code in which everyone is a beneficiary.

Picture in your mind two professional drivers. One of them obeys every law, keeps perfect log books, delivers every load on time. The second also obeys every law, keeps perfect log books, delivers every load on time. The first driver says he does it because fines are expensive, log book violations are a hassle, and delivering loads on time makes his dispatcher and company owner think of him as their favorite. If for any reason a load is not delivered on time or is damaged, he can relate the mile marker along the route where it happened, and how the incident was inevitable.

When the second driver is asked why they are lawful, they answer by saying, “I keep the laws because when they handed me my CDL, I promised I would. I signed a piece of paper that said I would, and my signature means something.” Concerning that on-time delivery, “When they gave me this load, and I accepted it, I promised to get it here on-time and safely. I keep my word.” And if something happens to that load, they take responsibility for it. They “own it.”

From all appearances, two comparable drivers that anyone would want on their team. But I know without thinking which one I want as my friend and which one I’ll keep at a distance.

I have had the privilege of knowing several people of honor in my life. Knowing them, inspired by them, I fear an exploration of true honor would take more space than we have here. They never took sides in an argument, unless the argument was something they were passionately defending. Even then, they did it without harming or shaming anyone. They always did the right thing. They kept secrets. They expressed their true feelings without malice. They never manipulated people or situations for personal gain or satisfaction. They used their aptitude and skill to lift those less fortunate, not to look down on them. They always reached out with a spirit of helpfulness and giving, they fiercely guarded the innocent and honored the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, always. Each one of them unwittingly inspired me to be like them, no matter how many times I missed the mark.

Some of these people were police officers, a job where honor is a precept. Some were songwriters. Musicians, audio engineers and people in radio. Some were gifted physicians; one was homeless person. Some are still with us, and I hope they recognize themselves in my words. Some of them are gone, and that’s what brings this subject to my mind. I recently said good-bye to one. At his funeral someone said, “He was a man of honor.” Immediately, I thought, “Yes he was. He would be glowing if he heard that.”

On the way home, I contemplated whether I would receive similar praise someday. I looked down at my speedometer and thought, “I still have work to do.”



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