Sunday, October 18, 2009

Dishonoring the Power of the Word "Honor"

“To honor” is a verb applied to one deserving admiration for strength of character and/or good deeds. Why do people today throw it around as a term to apply to anyone who died, regardless of his/her character or the circumstances of the death?

I’m looking at a news article using “honored,” “honoring,” and “honor” multiple times to recount the death and funeral of a seventeen-year-old boy killed in a car accident as the passenger of a drunk teenage driver. The accident occurred at 1:45 a.m., in a wealthy suburb, long past the legal curfew for underage teens. The driver was reportedly drunk enough that his three passengers could easily have recognized that getting into the car with him posed a danger to them and any other car they encountered. The kids all attended one of our area’s most highly ranked schools, so they were presumably educated about drunk driving, probably with some special presentation at school involving a smashed vehicle and a tear-jerking reenactment of a fatal crash. In other words, not one kid in that car, even the now dead one being “honored,” had an excuse for breaking the law and the hearts of family and friends by 1) being out driving after curfew (the laws were created to protect kids, after all!); 2) drinking alcohol; and 3) getting into a car driven by a drunk.

And we “honor” the dead boy WHY?

“Mourn,” yes.

“Grieve,” certainly.

“Memorialize,” of course.

But “honor”? Was he an admirable asset to his community, a promising scholar, a selfless do-gooder, a pillar of strength for his family? The article says only that he was a surfer, that kids deemed him “funny and a good friend.” Either the journalist left out some very important details to show why he was worthy of “honoring,” or the journalist and all those quoted in the article who used the verb “to honor” in some form have misused, and indeed desecrated, a term that ought to be reserved for the worthy, not just the dead.

Death doesn’t make you honorable. Life, and good choices, do.

I sympathize with the mourners who feel the needless loss of a young man’s life. I really do. Especially with his parents, since I have precious teenagers of my own.

I am not negating the painful love and loss endured by the people at the funeral. On the contrary, I am calling attention to it, to the fact that his death is about pain and loss. Not about honor.

This seventeen-year-old boy’s funeral was deemed by one interviewee in the article as “a celebration of his life.” I see no cause to celebrate the probable misguidance of an irresponsible kid who died due to his own bad choices, pitiable and tragic though that may be. I do see a cause to mourn. And to memorialize, to prevent similar mourning in the future.

By “honoring” a kid for dying in a drunk-driving accident in which he was an accessory to his own manslaughter, we become accessories ourselves—to the denial of responsibility that will lead to the next drunken killing. Let us honor, instead, the power of words, used appropriately: their power to teach by implication.