On Blood and Honor

“Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

–Ephesians, 6:2-3, RSV

“Life, every man holds dear; but the dear man holds honor far more precious-dear, than life.”

—William Shakespeare,Troilus and Cressida

Tonight, I took my children over to my grandmother’s place to say goodnight, as I do every night when I am home visiting my parents in Richmond. She lives with them, so it is a short trip and one they really look forward to each night. This evening was special, though, as one of my uncles was visiting with her. It has been a difficult week here, as my grandfather passed away last Monday, November 26th, on my fortieth birthday, as fate would have it. Uncle Dennis had come by, I imagine, to spend a little extra time with his mother, to offer some comfort, and to take away some of the loneliness for just a little bit. (Also, he had come for ham. This is a normal occurrence in my family, and one will travel great distances well into the evening hours, if it is offered.) My grandmother is blessed with five living children, and too many grandchildren and great-grandchildren to count, all of whom will help her to begin this new chapter of her life, we say. But she is old. So what we really mean is that we will help her to die a little less lonely than she otherwise would have. We will make her last years as happy as we can.

When I was in graduate school studying political theory, it was rather in fashion, for a time, to romanticize the idea of loneliness as a “way of life.” Even back then, at such a time when one is apt to find every sort of faddish idea sexy, no matter how ludicrous and inane, I knew that particular line of thought was lame, thought up by male graduate students who had clearly run out of words to plug in at the end of “the politics of ______,” a phrase out of which so much BS is spun in the discipline of political theory. Oh, I got it! Loneliness! Because drinking black coffee by myself in cafes and taking long walks alone at night is so meaningful and deep, man. Aloneness is a prerequisite for the pursuit of knowledge. I am always already alone. We come into the world alone, and we leave it totally…alone. And other stupid things, etc., etc. Now that I am older and struggling with my own feelings of unwelcomed loneliness of a particular sort, I think back to the postmodern obsession with loneliness of my grad school days with even more antipathy. One need only witness a grieving old woman put her husband in the ground to know that loneliness is a cruel and devastating thing. And it is something one cannot really know until one has lived a wholly shared life, in whatever form. The pangs of true loneliness are only felt after one has been cut off, physically or even emotionally, from the loving company of another—whether a parent, a child, a spouse, or a dear friend. But someone with whom a life was shared.

I know something about loneliness now; namely, that I do not want it for myself or for those I love.

In any case, this particular uncle is a preacher and a father of five. Although he is not especially loquacious at family gatherings, he is a good one, probably better than most of us, to offer healing words that might restore some hope and faith. I was glad to see him again, so soon after our time together this weekend. He is fairly conservative, and I am fairly liberal; he is traditional, while I am progressive; he is a man of God who shepherds a church, and I am a woman who believes but continues to struggle with religion and its place in my and my children’s life. He used to tease me unmercifully about my veganism and political views, and I have been known to furiously take notes during his sermons, on the few I have attended, mapping out the fallacies and incoherencies, my mother shaking her head and nodding, unclear with whom she was in agreement (definitely, me). I was young, then, and rejecting so much of what I now find comforting — God, tradition, family, and, yes, the wisdom of age and experience. Don’t misunderstand, we still have relatively little in common and do not see each other very often; nevertheless, we have an unspoken affinity for one another, despite the failings we might see in each other. Failings that are, no doubt, thrown into sharp relief when we are in each other’s company, at least it seems to me that my own are. Nevertheless, he is “blood kin,” as we say. There is nothing I would not do for him or any one of his children, my cousins. The same is true for all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. I was reminded of this fact at my grandfather’s funeral this past weekend, a grandfather who, interestingly, was not our “blood kin,” as he was my grandmother’s fourth husband—rich, I know, and it gets even better than that—but we are a family whose love has an absorptive quality that easily forgets the significance of a bloodline. We all came together, some of us not seen or heard from in years, to mourn this loss and to say to each other: you can count on this, we will be here, no matter the time and space between us. Family is one of the many things we take for granted in our youth. Knowing this, I try to be forgiving of our teenagers’ aloofness in the presence of their family. It is one of the many nuggets they will have to come by the hard way.

As we were saying our goodnights to my grandmother and goodbyes to my uncle tonight, and the boys were climbing into their great uncle’s lap for a hug and kiss, I was struck by the intimacy of the moment. They do not know him all that well, and my littlest, Jonah, has probably only been in his company a handful of times. It helps, perhaps, that Oliver, the four year-old, is a carbon copy of me as a child (and, okay, even now), and so perhaps this, too, explains some of the sweetness between them. As Olive opened his arms for a hug and leaned in to give his great uncle a kiss goodnight, my Uncle Dennis took his small face in his hands and said softly to him, “Oliver, be good for your mama, and honor her.” Oliver wriggled and smiled, and Dennis gently said it again: “Honor your mother always, son. Listen to her, she is wise.”

It was touching because it was so sincere and was a rare kind of exchange between an adult and child in that it was not performative in nature. So often, such things are said to a child for the benefit of other adults in the room, namely the parents, a thing which I have always found sad and irritating. But this was said in earnest and was for the sake of my child only. It was also interesting to me that he used that word—honor—because it is not one I use often as a parent, though I am not opposed to it. But it just so happened, that I had used it with Oliver and Jonah for the first time this Sunday, at the funeral. And I thought hard, though not very lucidly, about it then. The boys kept asking me what was happening, at each step of the way, and one of the things I would repeat to them is that this is how we honor Cliff (the name of their great-grandfather). We honor him by being here as he is laid to rest. We honor him by re-membering him, that is, by telling stories of him in such a way as to put the pieces of his life together for the sake of all of us who have only our memories of him now. We honor him by paying our respects, which is to say, by showing up and acknowledging the unique individuality and preciousness of a human life, that there has never been, nor will ever be, another one quite like him. These are things I said because I didn’t know what else to say. They are little, so I also talked of heaven, Cliff’s readiness to die, and his “spirit” (do they even know what that is? do I?) that is always with us, not because I am certain of any of that, but because such things bring comfort to a child and because I found myself completely bereft of any other language upon which to draw.

My uncle and I have both studied the ancient Greeks—he, as a seminary student and religious scholar; I, as a political theorist. Although we likely approach these texts differently, I suspect our proclivity for the ancients means that we would find common ground around the structure of a child’s moral education, if not its content. In other words, we can probably both generally agree that a child learns something of goodness, first, by being told (by someone who is good and wise) that something is good; second, by being made to practice the good and to experience the pleasure that comes with goodness, or, you might say, mimicking goodness (not yet really knowing why it is good, in the first place); third and finally, by explaining through reason why something is good. This is a rough summary of my own approach to parenting, and also of what we can glean was Aristotle’s notion of the moral development of children. I recognize it has an authoritarian bent, and so I also encourage things like curiosity, exploration, creativity, and even disagreement, like any decent liberal parent does. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, I think I am sufficiently wizened to teach them about the good, and, though they have their own insight and point of view (which I try mightily to take into account), they have, as my uncle jokingly remarked tonight when they came goofily bounding into the room, “no wisdom, whatsoever, just boundless energy.” At forty, I have plenty of wisdom, but almost no energy.

He said, honor your mother. And when I was putting Oliver to bed tonight, he asked me, “How do I honor you, mama?” Of course, we do not honor the dead in the same way that we honor the living, and so I had to think fast on my feet. I told him that he honored me by listening to me, by learning from me, and by living the best life he could every day, which means learning from his mistakes, not never making them. Then he asked, “What is honor made of, mama?” These are the moments in parenting when you wish you had a pause button. And this very moment is precisely why Aristotle believed it was best to explain the good only after a child had acquired the capacity for reason and judgment, and as smart as Olive is, he does not yet qualify at four years of age. Nevertheless, I came up with this answer on the fly: honor is made of the stuff that’s in your heart that you cannot see but know is there. Honor is made up of the actions that you take when you want to live a life that is as good as the person you most admire.

Of course, I hope this person will be me one day, but I am at least wise enough to know that if that day ever comes, it will be a long way off. And will I be deserving, even?

Most people think me a good daughter, a dutiful and loving one, and I am. But I have not always honored my own parents. In fact, I have dishonored them in countless ways, big and small, over the years. Perhaps dishonor is too strong a word here. But I have certainly failed to honor them, by not heeding their advice, by not living by their good example, and by rarely learning from my own stupid mistakes, especially when I was young and so dim as to not see that they are people deserving of all the honor I have to give.

At forty, I find that I am thinking quite a lot about how to honor my mother and father. And one does that in different ways at different stages of life. In one’s midlife, of course, it would be insufficient to merely take the good advice of a parent and learn from one’s mistakes, though that would at least be a start. No, I have reached a point in life at which honoring them while they are living means having to take a long, hard look at my own life and the choices I have made and make every day, and to ask myself: am I living a life of which they have thought me capable and worthy, both by virtue of being their flesh and blood and by way of the innumerable resources they have bestowed upon me? The answer to that question is almost certainly not yes. It’s not necessarily no either. It’s likely somewhere in between, loosely tethered to the clichéd concept of a “work in progress.” How…unremarkable.

I find it odd and somewhat unfortunate that a concept like honor is generally thought to reside in the domain of religion or antiquated traditions. Indeed, it creeps right up next to something like the concept of obedience among liberals (and in the Book of Ephesians, where the commandments are given, honor comes directly after the commandment to obey your parents), and we think those who use it in the way my uncle did—in a casual sort of way, but suggestive of a hierarchy and a conference of authority—to be a bit out of touch with the values of an egalitarian and free society. I confess this might be my usual response to the directive: honor your mother. And, yet, so much of my own inner-strife these days is ultimately about a fear that I will fail to do so, and not because of some unhealthy psycho-emotional hang-up from which I must release myself in order to be truly happy and self-actualized (and other things one learns in therapy). Rather, the fear of failing to honor both my mother and my father is completely rational, because it would mean that I have not lived the good and noble life they set out for me to live by their own example.

A person is never really lonely if they have people in their life who have earned the distinction of honor, and I count myself among those so blessed. For I have many. There is so much work to be done.

What a privilege it was to honor Cliff, in life and in death. We will miss you so.