On my honor

September 30th, 2010

My younger brother and sister and I would often make deals and bets when we were little. One time, I must have been a brat after a loss and told my little brother, “Oh well.” Oh well. I lost the bet, But I’m not going to get you a Popsicle or change the station on the television or do whatever I previously agreed to do in the event of my losing.

So, he wised up, and he prefaced every deal made after that day with the conditions, “No crossing. No saying, ‘Oh well.’”

He was referring to the other trick I used to weasel my way out of my end of the bargain; I’d say, “I was crossing my fingers. It doesn’t count.”

Kids do that kind of thing; they make pinky promises and say “cross my heart.” They shake hands. All of this is in the effort to prove their trustworthiness or truth-telling or to make sure they don’t get screwed out of another deal.

They make promises and take them very seriously.

They are masters of the oral contract and skilled distributors of social punishment when those oral contracts and promises are broken.

Adults might shake hands, but it’s only a formality. We confirm that we don’t get screwed by writing carefully worded contracts.

We don’t say, “I promise.” If someone says it to us, we don’t really believe him or her. We need the tangible, signed agreement.

I have several friends who are members of the same fraternity at a different university who exhibit the sort of oral contracts and promissory cues that are rare in adult language.

One of the organization’s values is honor, and it’s common that men of the fraternity will prove their conviction, loyalty or good will by saying, “On my honor.”

Honor is not something these men joke about. They don’t claim something on their honor frivolously, and when the claim is made, it is trusted and respected by others.

By making claims on our honor, we are making a promise not only to another person, but also to ourselves. We are putting our self-worth and moral conscience up as collateral.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in “This Side of Paradise,”  “…if it were made illegal to have more than a certain amount [of money], the best men would all flock for the one other reward which attracts humanity – honor.”

Isn’t that why tattling was such a big deal when you were young? It was a crime against your own.  Tattling meant surrendering to adults and abandoning your allegiance to kids and mischievousness. It wasn’t honorable, and when you are young, honor is a big deal.

In our careers, some of us may take oaths. Our employers may have mission statements or ethical codes. But, these oaths and codes have a force working against them that did not exist when we recited the Girl Scout Pledge as children.

As adults, we have the need and ability to acquire wealth. We drool over it, and the desire to get more money can take priority over the desire to be honorable.

Money makes it incredibly difficult to wholly preserve your convictions and make ethical decisions, and we would all be wise to question ourselves from time to time about whether our honor is a worthwhile cost to the decisions we make.

My friends are proof that oral contracts and upholding honor are still powerful and meaningful to adults, and they are things we would benefit to hold dear.