Why does it seem the underpinnings of our self-respecting, other-regarding society are slipping? Is it my imagination, or are honor, shame, and self-respect sliding? If so, the slide is unhealthy, and we need to stop it.
Growing up, we were taught how you behaved toward others reflected on you, but how you regarded yourself also affected you. That was part of growing up.
Put differently, while others placed expectations on us, our parents, teachers, clergy, scoutmasters, coaches, we were supposed to have expectations of ourselves.
Take the idea of honor. If we were not expected to be angels, we were expected to respect parents, teachers, veterans, our elders, as well as lines, rules, and laws.
We were expected to understand the concept of honor, idea that higher principles exist, like faith, God, and conscience – also an inner ticker, code of conduct, something we respected in ourselves as inviolate, a place we would not go.
Part of honor was understanding the value that resides in ourselves, thus in hard work, generosity with what we earned, care for others as a way of acknowledging gratitude, meeting our intergenerational and unrepayable debts.
Long before love of family, listening to your heart, giving for the sake of giving, before following biblical injunctions, there was always appreciation, part of honor.
In practical terms, if we did not wish to let parents, teachers, or elders down, we did not want to let ourselves down. Self-respect meant building self-reliance.
If we could learn something new, we did. If we could do it for ourselves, not be dependent, we did. If we could gain independence though work, some sacrifice, ownership of the problem so we owned the victory, we did.
We wanted a first job, then better job, a chance to see what see what we could do, what we were made of, how high we could go with what we had, we were curious.
All this fed into honor, meant we did not want a free lunch or anybody’s sympathy, no debt forgiveness, handouts, pity parties or benefit of someone else’s work.
That idea stunk, was like agreeing to defeat, pretending we had no personal value, no capability, no inner strength, no direction, resolve, stamina, or tenacity.
Do not get me wrong, this was not window dressing. This was not an indulgence for me or anyone else. worked of necessity, age 12, no regrets, very happy.
I cleaned and fixed toilets, climbed under buildings with monkey wrenches, worked on mowers, boats, and cars, learned how to shingle, paint, stud up walls, evolved to teaching things like swimming, eventually how to use my brain.
But the joy in all this was indescribable. When I see kids declaring bankruptcy rather than pay back student loans, Biden inviting that cheap cop out, encouraging them to disgrace their honor, an investment in themselves, it makes me sad.
My mother raised four kids on a schoolteacher’s salary, made life good, told us we had to go to college, which meant – with no money – work, loans. We all did that.
In my case, I worked all my college years, paid back loans for the next twenty, but believed in myself, was very glad others believed in me. I would not think of letting them down, caving to some handout, looking for a free lunch, no way.
Then take the idea of shame. You see transgender boys edging out girls who are built differently, thinking they are “special” for indulging unfairness, no shame.
You see politicians indulging in insider trading, taking all they can, getting rich on the public dole, embracing political corruption and bold lies. It is un-American.
The idea that you should have dignity is not complicated, simple. It means you have enough self-respect to believe integrity matters, has meaning for you, that you have some belief in yourself, expect something of yourself, a code.
People who have no shame for illegality, immorality, and venality, their greed and thinking God forgives mobs and slobs, that there is no need to try, that you can steal to get by – here is a shocking revelation: You have failed yourself.
That message was taught in my youth, and stuck. Because it stuck, and decades before us, America is what it is. Honor, shame, and self-respect do matter. The slide is unhealthy, and we need to stop it.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.