Reflection 108: Integrity I

May 27, 2009

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Stop in your tracks and watch those around you striding purposefully about their business. It always amazes me how driven we have become, how earnestly we push on without glancing right or left. We drive the kids to school, to violin practice, to soccer, to ballet, to rehearsals. And then pick them up and drive home. Busyness is our business, the exact opposite of the broad margin Thoreau sought around his life.

 

Having read most of his writings, including the Journals, I have long admired Thoreau for the evident integrity backing up every word. Whatever he did, he did wholeheartedly, his own way. Uniqueness and integrity go together because no two of us are the same. But being busy cuts through our uniqueness, as if routines were more important than personal passions and judgments. What would happen if we stopped and smelled the flowers along the way? We’d be late, and everybody knows it is a sin to be late. Bosses know it, teachers know it, sergeants know it, theatergoers know it, entire corporate hierarchies know it. Lateness can lower your grade, your pay, your IQ, and probably your sex drive.

 

Adopting cultural mores and routines means you have donated part of your brain to your culture for the sake of being accepted. That’s a tough bargain because you are no longer fully yourself. You’ve become a political animal, living part of your life for the effect it might have on others. Wanting to please is one thing, doing it for personal gain is another. Selling your personal integrity is a form of prostitution (from Latin prostituere, expose publically, offer for sale). In our culture, it is an obvious good to watch TV, invest, buy, patronize advisers, consume, and generally go along with the crowd. How do we know? Because that’s the gist of many of the messages beamed at us in modern life.

 

But to take a stand against the onslaught takes integrity—being whole, entire, intact, untouched, or undamaged. Thoreau had that quality, as did Emerson and Walt Whitman. They were their own men, out to be true, not to please. Giving them the biting edge of independent thought, a quality shared with Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott, to name but three exemplars from each sex.

 

The competitiveness of our culture is meant to fracture the integrity of those who oppose it. Backed by wealth and the power of law, corporations will do their best to beat you into a pose of submission, to have you bend at the knees, throw up your hands and cry, “Enough, I’ll go along!” Dominance is claimed to be a synonym for masculinity, submission for femininity—obvious myths in a world requiring both men and women to be strong to survive. But for political and commercial purposes, the claim has a certain weight among those who please by doing what they’re told.

 

For myself, I believe the function of consciousness is to teach us integrity so that whether male or female, we can be wholly ourselves. In the Mind page at the head of this blog, I list various aspects of consciousness that might bear in varying combinations upon any given situation in awareness. These include: attention, feelings, various kinds of memories, motivation, sensory and bodily phenomena, understanding, imagination, intuition, judgment, planning, expectancy, and action (including language).

 

Integrity, to me, means these various aspects complement one another in contributing to any given episode of personal consciousness. They add to a whole greater than their individual shares taken separately. When we get it together, it feels good because it’s all of a piece. When our minds are at sixes and sevens, we know what that feels like—we can’t concentrate on action because we aren’t ready yet to decide what to do. But when the parts work in synchrony with one another, we are ready to make our move without hesitation.

 

Integrity is a sign that the famous binding problem has been solved in a given instance of consciousness. The problem “arises from the brain’s architecture, in which the outside world is represented by nervous activity in a hundred or more distinct regions” (Christof Koch, The Quest for Consciousness, p. 167). Yet consciousness creates the illusion that the mind is of one piece. Which is what integrity feels like.

 

My finest moments are those in which I am of one mind—not because my thought is so simple—but precisely because it is hard-won from so many sources yet presents itself as a self-made unity. Perhaps contributions from various brain assemblies are in synchrony with one another, which is what it feels like to me. Everything adds up without argument or discord, freeing my actions to be skillful, passionate, and wholehearted. I have served on a great many committees, so I know what it feels like to rub different parts smooth in order to come up with a compromise, always with a feeling of “it’s the best we can do.”

 

Today, a colleague sent an e-mail concerning the possibility of minds meeting in agreement when coming from different perspectives, I sent back this response:

 

Regarding two minds getting together. I agree with you, part way, but come up against the roadblock of personal integrity. I feel I am finally in a situation where much of my consciousness works cooperatively so that I feel wholly integrated as I write. I treasure that feeling because it has been so rare in my life. I threw out my TV in 1986 because it was such a distraction. I defend my turf, now living practically as a hermit (except for weekends). Now that I’ve got myself more or less together, I don’t want to give that up. It is exciting to think of meeting someone concerned with the same issues on the same level—but daunting, too. At least my mistakes are my own. My belief [is] that one life contains all the stimulation required in order to do good work and make a contribution. Am I wrong? Probably. But it feels great doing what I can with what I have. Still, I’m willing to consider—if not fully explore—the options. What happens if my well runs dry? That’s when I’d need help. So far, it hasn’t happened. In the meantime, I pick and choose in the light of my personal judgment. So keep writing and being your own person. Integrity, once achieved, is a priceless possession.

 

Yes, dialogue is possible between persons of integrity. I find it a waste of time between those whose opinions are threatened by dissent because they aren’t fully supported by every aspect of consciousness. That to me seems to be the state in which most of us conduct our everyday affairs. We generally wing it, doing the best we can under the circumstances, often unfavorable.

 

Which is why we play so many games. Governed by rules, they impose integrity upon us from the outside, and by simplifying the number of options we have in making legal moves. If we cheat, it’s too much like work to be fun anymore.

 

Society places so many pressures upon us to do this and do that, it’s a wonder we ever find quiet time for getting ourselves together. I know women who write poetry at the kitchen table during the fifteen minutes the kids take their afternoon nap. Every four days that adds to an hour of integrity, twenty-four hours of integrity every 96 days—almost four days of integrity a year. That kind of serial project may be the best we can manage during our working, childrearing years. In the interests of full disclosure, I am technically retired, but I’ve never been busier in my life. The difference is I do what I choose to do, not what I am assigned. The tradeoff is I’m not always informed about many of the things that other people talk about and seem to take seriously.

 

The juncture (we now say interface) between people of integrity is always the hard part. What good is integrity if you keep it to yourself? Which is the situation my colleague was asking about in his e-mail. Can integrities be shared so they add to more than the sum of their parts? I gotta believe. When we all achieve integrity in our consciousness, then we will act on the best advice obtainable internally and socially, and the world is bound to be a better place.

 

For now, I offer integrity as something to strive for. After that, we’ll have the dialogue that will save the world. Hopefully, some are having that discussion already, so we’re not as far behind as the nightly news would suggest.

 

¦

 

 

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