Spring 2002



An American congressional-style building set against a pink sky

THIS IS AN ODD unfashionable word, a stranded-in-the-attic word calling to mind jousting knights, Eagle Scouts, and John Ford westerns. I e-mailed my stepson Charles, twenty-two, a computer programmer in Manhattan and one smart cookie.

“Ever think about honor?”

“Got a toast about it,” he fired back. “To gettin’ honor and stayin’ honor.”


“Seriously? It’s not relevant to me. I mean, in practice, every day.”

If compassion is a teddy bear, the softest sell of all, and resolution is a rocking horse, and honesty a big-eyed smiling doll, then honor is the tin soldier of the virtues, awkward, creaky, all unforgiving angles. Does not play well with others. A little like your mother’s heirloom china. You’re glad to have it, pleased to put it on display, let the world know you know the good stuff from the dreck. But use it? That is, as Charles would say, “in practice“?

Couple hundred policemen and firefighters racing to the rescue, knowing this could mean their death and still plunging on—that was honor talking, honor on task. But other words came more easily: duty, guts, professionalism. “Just doin’ our job,” went the grim refrain. American style at its best—terse, lean, and get the mike out of my face. Nobody involved spoke of honor, of acting honorably, doing the honorable thing.

Like pornography, it’s hard to define but we know it when we see it and we know it when we don’t. Its public face is courage—Jimmy Stewart’s silver senator in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, bold man, good man, born to lead. But it was the other guy, John Wayne’s guy, the man who lost it all, who had the stuff of honor, the moral instinct to do the right thing and shut up about it. Courage reaps a sweet reward. But honor can’t help itself. Flies solo. Keeps a low profile. Hardly knows the sound of its own voice.

But honor can’t help itself. Flies solo. Keeps a low profile. Hardly knows the sound of its own voice.

When our government, instead of offering swift apologies, equivocated after a low-flying U.S. pilot snapped the cable of an Italian gondola and sent so many to their graves, and again after a U.S. sub smashed willy-nilly into a Japanese fishing boat, dishonor stained us all. Not because of military negligence. Because these blunders howled for the same uncalculating response exemplified by the heroes of September 11—and we backed away.

Was it jingoism, legalism, or are we so out of practice? I think honor, no less than faith, civility, or kindness, is a muscle made and toned by habit. Use it or lose it. Those firefighters used it for years, decades before September. If our opportunities to behave with honor are rarely as epic or dramatic, they still abound in real ways. A friend tells a cold, gossipy story at a dinner party. Do I call him on it and watch my shy reproof bring down the night like a soufflé? A frazzled mother smacks her fractious toddler in the supermarket. Kid wails, but he’ll live – this is their weary little dance. Do I cut in with a rebuke, knowing there is nothing I can offer that she’s in any shape to hear? Knowing the kid’s going to hate me for it? Knowing I’ll get creamed?

I’ve never been an agent of catastrophe, never crashed a sub into a boat. But bad things happen and if I’m not in the habit of the honorable response, God help my soft soul. Honorable conduct is not automatic. If honor is a muscle, my tone sucks. So I start the drills, the little workouts. I exercise. I build up. Not angling for medals here. Just want to know I too could do it—could tell somebody, someday, no irony, no wink, Hey, just doin’ my job.

Amy Godine writes extensively about the Adirondack mountains. In 2002, she was working on a book about a short-lived antebellum black farm settlement in the Adirondacks, based on research she did as curator for the exhibition Dreaming of Timbuctoo, which was profiled in The New York Times.