What do you do when the world isn’t right around you? When you see a friend or stranger being mistreated or a person in authority behaving badly? Do you assist and defend those being persecuted? Do you call out the person in power and try to hold them accountable?
Be the change you want to see in the world. ~Gandhi
While there are many national and global problems that are seemingly out of our control, there are things we can do on a local level—in our homes, workplaces and communities. This means that, as the Gandhi quote above illustrates, we need to be agents for good. We need to be the beacons of moral character we want to see in the world.
I was reminded of this point the other day, when my wife showed me a passage in the new book City of Girls by Elizbeth Gilbert. It has to do with “the field of honor.” A character named Olive explains the concept this way to her partner Peg:
The field of honor is a painful field. That’s what my father taught me when I was young. He taught me that the field of honor is not a place where children can play. Children don’t have honor, you see, they aren’t expected to, because it’s too difficult for them. It’s too painful. But to become an adult, one must step into the field of honor. Everything will be expected of you now. You will need to be vigilant in your principles. Sacrifices will be demanded. You will be judged. If you make mistakes, you must account for them. There will be instances when you must cast aside your impulses and take a higher stance than another person—a person without honor—might take. Such instances may hurt, but that’s why honor is a painful field.
Olive then reminds Peg, and all of us, that we have a choice—the option to step up or step back, as we encounter difficulties in life. We can choose to be people of action and do something or choose to be silent and do nothing, even though our hearts tell us to act. She continues:
Of course, nobody is required to stand in the field of honor. If you find it too challenging, you may always exit, and then you can remain a child. But if you wish to be a person of character, I’m afraid this is the only way.
While it may be “the only way,” Olive goes on to say that while she regularly tries to apply this idea to her own life, she is not always successful. But importantly, she makes the effort, even though it may cause personal discomfort or inconvenience. You have to do what you believe in and there are just some ideas, and some people, that are worth fighting for.
Courage is not the absence of fear, but the capacity to act despite our fears.
The quote above come from a person known for courage, the late US Senator and war hero John McCain. It illustrates the fact that if we want to stand in the field of honor, we must overcome our fears, sometimes of retribution, sometimes of venturing into the unknown.
There’s a stirring passage in McCain’s book Character is Destiny, where he quotes the Shawnee Indian leader Tecumseh. It reads like guidance for the woman or man who has decided to live his or her life with honor and moral integrity. I’ve broken the passage into 9 key points.
9 Keys to Being a Person of Honor & Integrity
Trouble no one about their religion.
Respect others in their views, and demand that they respect yours.
Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life.
Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people.
If in a lonely place, always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger.
Show respect to all people and grovel to none.
When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food, and the joy of living.
Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of vision.
Be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over.
In other words, as referenced in point 9, do all you can now to live a life of character as none of us know how much time we have left. Writing in Wisdom from World Religions, John Templeton tells us that “we can meander through life or we can become inspired by some beneficial purpose.” His advice:
Be honest. Be true. Become aware of what is in you. Announce it!
Claim the aspects of your being that align with the character you desire and release everything else.