A levee that lacks integrity washes away in the aftermath of a hurricane. The purpose of that levee is to hold back the water and to keep it from washing away people, culture and history. Without integrity, it cannot fulfill that function, and its reason for being is lost along with the lives it was meant to preserve.
Just like the levees that failed New Orleans, each of us has a reason for being, a purpose that will fulfill us. But that purpose can only be fulfilled if we have integrity. Without integrity, we crumble before adversity. With integrity, we are able to stand strong in the midst of churning waters and perhaps create a center of calm and strength that can aid and inspire others. Without integrity, we are like a rudderless boat, aimless and a danger to ourselves and others. With integrity, we are able to steer a clear course and find a way through the flotsam and jetsam of life.
Physical things lose integrity over time, and often, when something physical loses integrity – say, a chair – integrity can be restored with a little glue, some furniture nails and a bit of string. A levee can be strengthened with manpower and know-how.
People can also lose integrity over time. A little abuse here, a little exposure to catastrophe, brutality or war there, along with messages of hate and corruption and, perhaps without awareness of the toll taken, a fine human being begins to lose integrity. Sometimes the damage occurs too early in a person’s life for the memory to be conscious. Little things over the years: I witnessed classmates stealing team decals from a teacher’s desk and I felt weakened and threatened. I witnessed co-workers taking home supplies from work. A boss tried to hit on me while his wife washed dishes in the next room. A constant string of "real world" events went on around me without seeming to involve me.
Yet, in spite of the sterling example of the aunt and uncle who raised me, I felt degraded, diminished and at sea. I began to feel like it didn’t matter whether I was honest or not, like it didn’t matter whether I stepped up to the plate or cowered at home. I became cynical and thought I knew the score. I took delight in satire. Sometimes, I took office supplies home from work. I said hurtful things and pretended I didn’t know that’s what they were. I lied. I pretended I was telling the truth, but I lied about my feelings and what I was thinking. It was the kind of lying one does to save face – to seem more worldly wise than one truly is.
But life had become a joyless desert. I avoided other people, because I could not bear their duplicity and stupidity. My internal landscape was a dreary, post-apocalyptic desert (a real desert teems with life and beauty). But something I read (one of the Seth books), made me realize that by bending to "the way of the world" I was short-changing myself. I was keeping myself from becoming anything like the person I dreamed of being as a child.
I wondered if I should just give up and die – or go crazy. I found I couldn’t go crazy, or even pretend madness, but I could see how blissful that path might be, and I longed for it in the face of relentless sanity. Suicide was cowardice – and I was unwilling to be a coward. So what was left for me?
What saved me? A decision to stop lying and to stop the employee pilferage. That stopped the hemorrhage of integrity and helped me become strong enough to look at my life honestly and see the cowardice that kept me in dead-end jobs and living in isolation.
I knew, from my uncle’s example, that integrity and courage were really about holding to a beautiful truth and walking into unknown territory despite fear. Emulating him changed my life.
A book I read explained that the way a person physically carries him or herself affects all facets of that person’s life. If you walk and sit with a hunched back you tell the world you’re just waiting for the next attack. You are also harming your health and showing the world your poor self-image. But standing and sitting with your back straight and your head held high improves self-esteem, improves physical health and improves drastically the way the world sees you. I found it also helped build my level of integrity. As the song says, "Make believe you’re brave, and the trick will take you far. You may be as brave as you make believe you are."
The visible change in me inspired my boss to offer me the assistant manager position. I learned new skills and began to believe in myself. The path I set out upon then led me eventually to where I am now, challenged daily at Lake Harriet Spiritual Community to be the highest and best I can be. Does that mean I never have opportunities to lose integrity? No. And, sometimes, I focus so much on one area of life that another has a crisis of integrity. When that is borne in upon me, I try to face the new challenge with the wisdom, courage and strength I’ve garnered through previous challenges.
There is a helpless feeling that goes along with lack of integrity. It is like a great suppurating wound. But, like the broken levee, it can be healed, the hemorrhage stopped and rebuilding begun. The trick is to look at the breach with compassionate, but sensible, eyes and see if the rebuilding should occur on higher ground.