I looked at the one on top, picked it up and looked at the next...and the next...and the next. It was a strange feeling, looking at each of them individually, and together as a group. They looked very impressive; gold seals, fancy printing, important sounding words. Uncle Sam makes up great certificates - you have to give him that. I had seen these or similar certificates hanging framed on the "I love me" walls of the homes or offices of people I had worked with over the years. Individually, they stood for specific actions or accomplishments. As a group, they represented a life - or at least they were supposed to.
I had never hung up any of mine. I had never even bought a frame for any of them. Some of them represented things I was proud of; others, not so much. But in either case, they were only paper representations of realities that could never be reflected on paper, and most had been given by faceless (and in some cases semi-nameless) organizations I no longer respected, for service to causes I could no longer support.
Looking through that box, I had no feeling at all - none - except for the vague understanding that it was strange to have no feeling about it, and the realization of how ridiculous it was that these "honors" that meant nothing to me had made those who had presented them feel so important, magnanimous, and somehow also honored by their act of conferring them on those of us whose services they were trying to reward, buy or manipulate.
I thought about finally throwing them out, but this seemed a bit dramatic, so I just put them back in the box, the box back in the drawer, the drawer in the chest, and the chest back in the corner of the basement ... and turned off the light.
Years ago, I realized how fleeting the "honors" of society, and most people, can be. And I learned that the only true honors are those given for no reason except the honest desire of the giver, without any thought of reciprocation; the love of family and true friends, and the respect of those who are themselves worthy of respect. And I have been fortunate to have been the recipient of more of that than I probably deserve.
For years, I have kept a few mementoes of those things I value either on a mantel at home or in my office. One of my most cherished items is a casting of the world which was made and given to me by a very dear friend of mine, Fred Gabbard. I met Fred when I was 19 years old and he was in his 50's. He became my friend and mentor, and taught me a couple of very important things: that age doesn't matter, and that the only limits people have are the ones they place on themselves. Fred passed away a number of years ago, but the casting he gave me has hung on the wall of every apartment, house or office I have ever occupied.
I have received a number of things over the years that have special meaning to me: a wood carving made by and given to me by my brother; a framed prayer given to me by a friend. The wastebasket in my office is a cardboard box, painted green by a friend and meant as a joke. She showed me how Wal-Mart sacks fit in it as liners, and some time after she had made it for me, I discovered she had painted a smiley face on the bottom of it. It has been my office wastebasket for several years now.
There is a box on my desk in which a friend in Belgrade shipped me a cup from her country, Serbia. She covered it in a pretty paper to make it look nice, though there are very few pretty things left in her country after our horrendous bombing of it. It now sits on my desk, for me to keep other special things in.
Over the past couple of years, I have been honored to receive several things that I value enough to want them near me every day. One is "Leaves of Gold", a beautiful book of sayings, stories, prayers and life lessons given to me by Tony Guarino, a black belt and a good man. Another is a plaque given to me by Jim Harrison. Among the things inscribed on it, the thing I value the most is the word "friend". I don't need to explain this to anyone who knows Jim Harrison. And a third is an honorary Shodan Ho (Black Belt) given to me by Bob Boggs in his system, Kenukan - only the second such he has given in over thirty years.
I consider all of these true honors. But they are not honors because of what I have done. They are true honors because of the honor and integrity of those who gave them to me. I am honored to know such people, and am fortunate to be able to work with and have them in my life.
I have come to understand that the most important things in life are the things I once thought to be the most mundane, that the greatest privileges are the things I once thought burdensome, and the greatest freedom what I once thought to be the most limiting.
There is more honor in raising one child properly out of love than in saving many for personal glory. There is more honor in being a true friend to those few who value and deserve it than a superficial friend to the many who don't. And there is more honor in standing for the things you believe in than receiving accolades and awards from those who would rather you did not.
Real honor is a funny thing. Though it can be discarded by those who don't value it, it can never be taken from those who do. It can only be given with respect, and it can only be received with humility. Anything else is just paper.