A while back, I introduced my children to Roman Holiday starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. My nine-year-old daughter exclaimed, “I think this is the best black & white movie I ever watched!” (Yes, I’ve made them watch a few. It’s cultural, y’know.) She meant it, too. She has watched it multiple times since then. And this despite the fact that the heroes don’t live happily ever after in princess-weds-commoner bliss.
What did the story have over the glory of boy-gets-girl?
Characters with honor.
Both characters figured out that duty outweighs personal interests like leisure, wealth or even romantic desire. The very fact that they both made the hard choice leaves us admiring them even more. It’s one of those, “Wow, I hope I’m that strong if I’m ever that tempted!” feelings.
[Sorry, should I have given you a spoiler alert? The movie is almost 60 years old, after all...]
We don’t have to orchestrate a happily ever after.
We don’t have to twist the plot into a tidy bow at the end.
Consider some of these literary classics for a moment.
- Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage examines a young boy’s struggle to find out if he is brave enough to be a man. Drawn by the glory of the military pageantry, he is forced into the ugliness of the Civil War. At first he flees, but triumph comes when he returns as a flag bearer, leading a charge and placing himself in harm’s way in order to encourage valor in this fellow soldiers. No parades are organized in his honor. But we know that he knows he has the courage he needs, and we hope we have the same, regardless of the nature of our battle.
- Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter follows the aftermath of a love triangle in which Hester Prynne is marked with shame by her Puritan community while her lover goes unscathed. The husband and wife are not reunited in love, nor do the lovers go off into the sunset. Each deals with demons within: jealousy, guilt, fear, hatred, loneliness. Although both offenders turn to a life of good works and forsake their sinful state, only one learns to forgive herself. Hester’s victory is her acceptance of the power of Christ’s grace. Her determined penitence gives all of us hope to overcome our own vices.
- In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (also starring Gregory Peck in the movie), the attorney Atticus Finch does not win the day in a sensational trial. Although he defends an honest and innocent man with skill and compassion, the racial bigotry of the day crushes justice. Yet when he leaves the courtroom, the entire black populace of the balcony stands to honor him, knowing that he has done all that he could to stand for truth. I’ll tell you, it rips me up every time I watch or read it. I want to be that bold in testifying of truth and in defending the oppressed.
- And in the play, The Crucible, by Arthur Miller (yes, another Puritan motif), the hero, John Proctor, actually dies at the end, and yet audiences applaud his choice to suffer for his integrity rather than live a lie. We are prompted to ponder, “Would I also give my life to be right with God?”
All of these characters find and display a measure of honor and do not require flowery or tidy endings to make them palatable. What they do–who they are–strikes a chord that resonates in our souls.
Honor isn’t one of those words people really use any more. No one is dueling to defend the honor of a damsel or a family name. Certainly prime time television isn’t concerned with portraying honor as it applies to family values. Even many young Boy Scouts struggle to understand the phrase, “On my honor, I will do my best…” Yet honor is a value that, when portrayed correctly, stirs within us one of the deepest and noblest of emotions: the conviction that right is right, and standing up for it is worth everything.
Imagine what would happen if society returned to the belief that honor mattered.
Imagine what would happen if men and women looked for and prized that divine attribute within each other.
Imagine if you wrote something that inspired us to find and guard our honor!