(Charlie) I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the “I” word. Maybe it’s because I’ve been noticing the places in the lives of others and in my own life where it’s been out. The ‘it’ that’s out is “integrity.” I’ve been seeing all of the ways that I make it OK to tolerate lapses of integrity that I am guilty of or that I judge in others. And there seems to be a relationship between these phenomena. The Buddhists call it “karma”, and although there have been volumes written about this concept, it can perhaps best be summarized by the well-known saying that “What goes around comes around.” Or to put it even more succinctly, to quote a friend “Nobody gets away with nothing.” There seems to be a pretty direct correlation between the degree to which I live in integrity and the degree to which I find myself in reactivity to those around me who I assess as failing to keep their word, their agreements, or their commitments. I do not believe, as some people do, that the way people around me behave is a reflection of my own intentions and commitment. I know that I’m not that powerful. What I am aware of though is that the degree to which I am reactive or disturbed by those folks has more to do with how innocent or guilty of those offenses I am, and of how forgiving I am of myself for my own (inevitable) lapses of integrity. “
Like the word “karma,” there are some concise definitions of “integrity” that you won’t find in the dictionary that capture the essence of what the word really means, the simplest of which is “walking the talk.” A couple of others are “practicing what you preach” and “putting your money where your mouth is.” I learned a slightly more elaborate definition of integrity from my friend Angeles Arrien, who sees it as “the integration and alignment of your thoughts, feelings, words and actions.” However you define it, integrity is about wholeness. The root of the word is “integer” which refers to a whole number. So integrity has to do with living life in a way that promotes the experience within yourself and in those around you of being whole and complete. It’s a great concept, but as anyone who has ever tried it knows, it’s easier said than done.
The “I” word gets bandied about a lot these days, mostly in TV commercials and newspaper ads, especially those that promote political candidates. In these times of twenty-four month election campaigns, these messages seem to be pretty ongoing. When you get saturated or inundated with a relentlessly repetitive message, one of three things tends to happen: (1) You accept the message as an unquestionable truth or (2) you cringe and reject it every time you hear it or (3) through it’s overuse it becomes utterly meaningless and evokes no response in you at all. All of these responses involve a kind of robotic automaticity that doesn’t allow for any kind of critical assessment of the claims or promises.
I notice that despite my best efforts there are certain messages that I tend to react to with a preprogrammed tendency to automatically reject. Like when someone says: “Trust me.” or when they say “You can take it to the bank.” or “I feel your pain.” or “I care; I really do.” or “I’ll call you back as soon as I can.” This last one, perhaps because I hear it so often both from the mouths of others and from their answering machines is one that I have lately been finding most problematic. A disturbing (to me) percentage of the people who promise that they will “get right back” to me, don’t. And that really gets to me sometimes, particularly when they try to excuse or justify their broken promises with a rationalization that I just don’t buy, like “the traffic was terrible” or “something came up at work” or “I was just about to call you back when the phone rang and it was you” or “Oh, yeah, I did mean to call you. Sorry about that” or “I’m a Pisces, what do you expect?”
What I feel like saying is, “What I expect is that you should keep your agreements and do what you or your answering machine tells me that you’re going to do and keep your lame excuses to yourself.” But I don’t say that. I also don’t say what I used to say a lot which is “That’s OK.” That’s usually what most people want and expect me to say when they fail to keep their agreements with me. Yet if I’m going to be really honest here, and since this piece is about integrity it probably would be a good idea to do that, I would have to admit that there is a little (maybe not so little) part of myself that feels superior and self- righteous and even good when I get to catch others being out of integrity. Catching them allows me to assume the moral high ground and feel superior to those who fail to live up to my standards which are of course the right ones that only someone who is completely out of it could fail to agree with.
The problem as you’ve probably figured out by now is that I ain’t no saint either, and there are more times than I care to recall or admit that I’m guilty of not doing things that I said I would do or doing things that I had said I wouldn’t. Because I too have committed some of these same ‘offenses,” I have no ground on which to stand to outwardly accuse others so I do it silently keeping my judgments to myself. On a good day I will acknowledge my broken agreements when I break them without being defensive or making excuses. I’m not always successful but I’m getting better. On a good day I will be honest and respectful in expressing my feelings of disappointment, worry, irritation or whatever else I’m experiencing in response to a broken agreement on someone else’s part. I’m getting a little better at doing this without making others wrong or being judgmental. And if I really tell the truth in a responsible, respectful and non-blaming way that doesn’t make the other person wrong, a remarkable thing often happens. My judgments dissolve, my resentment melts, and I feel closer to and forgiving of the other person. Sometimes of course, they aren’t particularly happy to hear my feelings and may feel put down regardless of how careful I am to express myself non-judgmentally. I’ve found that if I can stay true to my own experience and simultaneously be accepting of the feelings that the other person is expressing, that we can, and usually do, after a few go-rounds come to a place of deeper understanding which leaves us both feeling more connected and respectful of ourselves and each other.
When there is a commitment to integrity there is no circumstance or behavior that can derail us if we’re willing to hang in there and keep speaking our truth while listening compassionately and non-judgmentally to the other person. And on those occasions in which the outcome is less agreeable than we might have desired, it’s usually at least a step in a direction that ultimately serves the relationship even though the process may be more difficult at those times than we wish for it to be.
I don’t tell the truth because I believe I should or because I was told to do so. I do it because it is the perfect antidote to the self- righteousness, anxiety, arrogance, guilt and resentment that I often feel when I don’t. The compassion and humility that flows from my honesty gradually erodes those undesired aspects of my personality and deepens my experience of respect that leaves me feeling more connected with others, more self-accepting, and more free to live my life authentically. I try, not always successfully, to live in integrity with the truth of my experience not because I want to be a good person, but because it’s the best thing that I can do for myself. It’s the most direct path to my own heart and to the hearts of others.
If in doing so others benefit, so much the better. This is called “enlightened self-interest”. It’s the ultimate win-win game. And by the way, the interest that you receive is compounded on a daily basis. Can you think of a better investment?