A Question of Honour

By Bernie Bell

I read an article in the Scottish Review, by Howie Firth, http://www.scottishreview.net/HowieFirth454a.html

In this article, Howie mentions Richard van Emden’s book ‘Meeting the Enemy: The Human Face of the Great War,’ which opens with the story of Captain Robert Campbell in a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1916, learning that his mother was dying. The camp commandant offered to arrange to let him go home on a fortnight’s leave, if he would promise to return. Captain Campbell gave his promise and was released to spend time with his mother. Then, true to his word, he said goodbye to her and went back to the camp for the rest of the war.

This got me thinking about honour, having a code of honour, a sense of personal honour, honouring others and honouring your word or your promise.  This got me wondering how much folk today have that sense of honour. How many people, today would do as Capt. Campbell did, and as the German Commandant did, who trusted to someone having given their word.  At first, I thought, unfortunately, things have changed a lot, the world has changed a lot, and, would a prisoner today have enough honour, to give their word in that way, and keep it ?  Or, would that person think it was somehow ‘clever’ to take advantage of the good nature of the  Commandant, and ……scarper?  At first, I did think it would be more likely to be the latter, these days. Then, I thought, would it?  People are …people.  Probably, through time, there have been individuals who would have taken advantage of the good heart and good nature of the Commandant, and betrayed that trust. Some people have an innate sense of honour, trying to do the right thing, some…for one reason or another..…don’t.

Thinking in terms of times changing, I remembered the film of Pinocchio, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinocchio_(1940_film)  made in 1940, and horrible boys on Pleasure Island, in that film. They, to me, always represent that kind of person who just rampages, thoughtlessly and destructively through life, thinking it’s clever to do harm and get away with it – if they can be said to think, at all!  Why do they behave that way?  There will be probably be some back story in their life, which has made them that way, but, it’s my belief that it’s up to an individual, when they reach the age of reason, to see how their behaviour affects them, and others – work on themselves, and hope to change.  So, I see what life has put into them, as possibly being a reason, but not an excuse, for such behaviour.

There will have been people, all through time, who have a true sense of honouring themselves, and others, and trying to …….do as they would be done by. I came to the conclusion, that it isn’t to do with times changing, it’s just…………..people.

It is always good to come across tales of folk who do the right thing – have personal integrity.  Howie’s article is full of such tales and is heartening.

Initially, it did send me off down a road of negative thoughts about how the world has changed and about people being less likely to behave honourably, these day, but now, I don’t think so. We’re just people.  Some will appear to have honour, and see themselves as having honour, but, when it comes to the crunch, they don’t follow through. Some will not realise their own, positive,  strength of character  until tested, and then, will come through for themselves, and for others.

We muddle along, trying to deal with life, then, sometimes the times, or personal circumstances, present us with opportunities to test our inner strength. Some don’t manage to cope when this happens, and who’s to blame them? Some surprise themselves, and everyone else!  Some, skim along, not taking any big steps, forward or backward.

War, is one of those times and circumstances, which test people to their utmost.  I see Howie’s article as being about that testing.  The question to each person reading it is …what would you do?

Some years ago, someone sent me the following poem, by Zbigniew Herbert

I Gave My Word

I was very young

and common sense told me

not to give my word

I could easily say

I’ll give it some thought

what’s the big hurry

it’s not a train schedule

I’ll give my word

after graduation

after military service

after I make a home

but time exploded

there was no before

there was no after

in the blinding present

you had to choose

so I gave my word

a word–

a noose round my neck

an ultimate word

in the rare moments

when everything is light

and becomes transparent

I think to myself:

“my word

how I’d like

to take my word back”

it doesn’t last for long

the world’s axis screeches

people pass away

as do landscapes

colored rings of time

but the word I gave

is stuck in my throat

And this was my response………

“Yes, exactly, you give your word, you make your choice, you commit yourself, and you must stand by it.  Once you become aware, are given the choice “in the blinding present” (echoes of St. Paul on the road to Damascus there),  and set your foot on the path, you must stick to it, still out of choice though, it’s no good if it becomes just because you feel you must, or because it becomes a habit.  You have to keep re-iterating your choice and your commitment, keeping it fresh, and learning too, all the time, and as we learn, we renew our vows and our commitment, as the knowledge of what we’re here for, becomes clearer and stronger.

That’s a mighty good poem.  And it does stick in your throat, a bit, sometimes, when it’s hard to stick to it, and it looks like life would be easier if you could go back to sleep and sleep-walk through it.  But it isn’t.  And it isn’t about life being easy, anyway.  It’s about seeing your way, making your choice, and going with it, working with it, as long as you feel it’s the right choice, but, if your view changes, maybe a shift is then called for, but always sticking to having given your word, to do what you believe to be the right thing, at any given time.”

The concept of Honour, giving your word, to yourself as well as others, can play a large part in determining our progress through our life, and to our…self.

shaking hands

credit: Lucas Wikimedia Commons


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3 replies »

  1. I agree with what you say completely, Bernie.
    If I give my word it is cast-iron. It’s very important that I honour it, so when I say I’ll do something, it’s as good as done. Probably very old-fashioned.

  2. Howie (Firth) emailed in response………………

    “Indeed the importance of giving one’s word is most interesting, and the image of the man knocking at the door of the long-abandoned house in Walter de la Mare’s poem The Listeners:

    ‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
    That I kept my word,’ he said.

    I think there is something wonderful about this.

    And it seems to go a long way back to the Iron Age. The idea is that a commitment made while connected to stone or the Earth in a place open to the sky is to somehow make a cosmic connection, so that any breaking of it is an offence against the cosmic order and thus marked indelibly. This led to the total loyalty of people to their chief, which was a feature of the Highland clans, whose society would have been gone back to the Iron Age and have continued the old traditions for centuries through their isolation.”

    And I answered……….

    “Mike said……it also links with ideas of kingship, true kingship, where the people don’t just swear fealty to their king – the king is also expected to swear fealty to his people, and, if he doesn’t do the job, he’s out!
    I’m thinking of the footprint on Dunadd, too – where the king actually placed his foot, into a footprint in the stone, as part of his becoming king. Hmmmmmmm. There is something of this, here…………….


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