“There was nothing like an appeal to honor. It was a virtue that all craved, even those who lacked it. Fundamentally, honor was itself a debt, a code of behavior, a promise, something inside yourself that you owed to the others who saw it in you.”
Tom Clancy – Debt of Honor, 1995
Perceptions of “character” in an individual, be they friends, lovers, priests or politician, is an intensely personal exercise . . . And as we grow older those who shaped those perceptions become memories at a pace unimaginable when we were younger.
My perceptions and those of my peers I believe to be most worthy of emulation were shaped, for the most part by family, teachers, and mentors who were products of the Great Depression and the Second World War . . . Men and women whose esteem I cherished and to whom, to paraphrase Tom Clancy, I owed much more than ordinary debts.
I think I was 11 when I swore the first formal “oath” . . . On my honor, in front of God and my peers. At 73 I can still recite the Boy Scout Oath and the “Scout Laws” it demanded I live up to. To do one’s best to do one’s duty, to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.
The next such formal commitment came a year later when, at 12, and joined the “communion of saints” as a Southern Presbyterian. Like the Scout Oath and Laws, I can still recite the Apostles Creed . . . And still devoutly believe in the “communion of saints” and the “forgiveness of sins.”
The third I swore twice: marriage vows, before God, spouse, family and friends.
The last was not an oath, but an instruction, a set of composed-on-the-spot “rules” laid down by a new and heretofore-childless step-parent for his new wife’s still rather shocked eight-year-old son.
There were, at first, four rules. Always:
Do your homework first;
Do more than people expect;
Do what you know is right; and
Protect those who can’t protect themselves.
After my father’s passing we added one of his maxims: an admonition to never take credit for things one didn’t do . . . or as he put it, “Never wear another man’s medals.”
Rules set for children might as well be oaths one has sworn in their presence . . . sacred and forever binding. The oft heard, “Do as I say, not as I do” only drives home the seriousness of laying down laws for those who will forever judge you on how well you lived up to the rules you impose on them.
In the more than six decades since I swore my first “oath” I fear I have been less of a standard setter than a good counter example.
I have, however, been lucky enough to know, be taught by, love and live with people whose “character” embodied and exceeded the letter and spirit of all those words. I was married to one of them for 35 years.
All of them would deny that their “character” was anywhere near as flawless as I perceived it to be. And that, of course, is not only an essential, but one of the most admirable elements of true “character:” the ability to recognize and admit to failings in oneself as well as in others.
Even more rare is the ability to accept those flaws and forgive them.
Given that we are all flawed at best, who then has the standing to judge the “character” or others. . . and what, if any, are the standards?
One approach is to define the opposite of character:
For me, in 1961 Joseph Heller, a 60-combat-mission B-25 bombardier, and an enlistee at 19, made a good start in Catch 22:
“It was almost no trick at all . . . ,” Heller wrote, “to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”
The more things change . . . .