2021-03-25

Integrity, part 1


Integrity. That’s our theme of the month for March. One of our Journey Group facilitators pointed out to me that there’s something a little odd about having integrity month. If you’re only doing it for a month, it isn’t integrity. Having a consistency and steadiness through the years is part of what integrity is about.

The concept, "integrity," has three features, according to standard dictionaries. My first question for you – the first question offered by this month’s Journey Group packet – is: what ties these together? What gives integrity to the idea of integrity? The three features are:
  1. Adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.
  2. The state of being whole, entire, or undiminished.
  3. A sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition, as for example we might speak of the integrity of a ship’s hull.
What’s the connection between wholeness, being structurally sound, and being of good moral character?

I think there is a fabric of integrity that weaves those three strands together, but I’m interested in how you would articulate how they weave together, and you’ll have the chance to do that in your Journey Groups this month. (And if you’re not in one, you can sign up for one at any time – the sign-up form is on our website.) There’s also that feature of steadiness and consistency, which a sound moral character implies and provides.

This doesn’t mean you don’t change and grow and learn. Many of us put a high value on growing – on lifelong learning – and we don’t conceive of learning as simply amassing an ever-larger database of information. We think of learning as really meaning something: it matters to who we are, it changes us. And that’s also a puzzle for us to chew on this month: when does personal growth and change threaten our integrity? When does the growth and change of our congregation threaten its integrity?

For some of you, perhaps, this is not a purely hypothetical question. You may have had an experience where something you were a part of – your congregation, your workplace, your marriage – changed so much that it didn’t have the integrity that it had seemed to have. Others around you may have felt your integrity was a bit fuzzy, or dubious, when you underwent some big learning and change. What’s our story about how a life of integrity and a life of learning go together? We probably want to say that they seem at odds only if there’s some misconception about learning, or about the nature of integrity. So what is the correct conception?

Sometimes it’s my job to offer you answers. I don’t GIVE you answers – certainly not THE answer – Unitarians don’t do that. But sometimes I offer what I hope are helpful angles of approach. And I’m going to do that today. But for starters, I just have questions for us, and an invitation for each of us to wrestle with them. Because if integrity is anything, it’s not something some one else can give you. You have to work out what it is, and what yours is.

I do appreciate the writers who call attention to wholeness. I was intrigued to learn, as I was looking into the etymology, that integrity comes from the word “integer.” An integer is whole – no fractions or parts. Integrity means all of who you is included -- all the parts of you get welcomed in – no part is exiled, excised, repressed or suppressed. There’s a lot of pressure to parcel yourself, as Courtney Martin says – “to show up as only slices of ourselves in different places.”

The term, “Performative Self” was developed by sociologist Erving Goffman. Goffman’s groundbreaking 1959 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, looks at how, when a person comes in contact with other people, ze will shift zir setting, appearance, and manner in an attempt to control the impression that others might form. We primarily seek to avoid embarrassment, so we look for ways to highlight our most positive aspects. We perform a version of ourselves through our manner, and appearance.

As a performer, we might often work with others in teams jointly committed to a shared performance that maintains a certain storyline. Think of a formal dinner where someone trips and the others pretend not to see the fumble – a collective collaboration in saving face and maintaining the illusion that anything that might be embarrassing does not exist.

Such shared willed credulity happens on every level of social organization. Impression management is particularly in evidence in social media. Users create a profile and share very selectively and specifically what they like with their friends, family, or the world. So our increasingly on-line world amps up the pressure to parcel ourselves, present slices. We are curators of ourselves, deciding which exhibits to put on display.

It’s an act of rebellion, notes Courtney Martin, to be a whole person.
“It’s an act of rebellion to show up as your whole self, and especially the parts that are complex, that are unfinished, that are vulnerable.”
Before we can show up as a whole self to others, we have to show up as a whole self to ourselves. Or, rather, maybe it doesn’t have to be before. Sometimes maybe it comes after. Some part of ourselves might be revealed in a social context that surprises us – that we hadn’t revealed quite as much or in quite that way to ourselves.

So let’s say, rather, that there’s a back and forth. We may consciously intend to show up as a whole self – including the complex parts, the unfinished parts, the vulnerable parts. We can specifically aim to present ourselves as works in progress, which of course all of us are.

That’s our theology: revelation is continuous, including revelation of the self, and it has to be, on both of two levels: both because the whole thing can’t be presented in a single view, every exposure is necessarily from just one point, pointed in just one direction -- and because the whole thing is constantly changing. Even if the whole universe – or the whole universe of you – could be revealed in one mind-blowing flash, the next moment the world is different. The next moment you’re different.

We can specifically aim to notice when we’re presenting a pat package, and look for a way to acknowledge and reveal the un-pat, making-it-up-as-you-go, feeling your way reality that’s behind any given presentation of assured competence. If we look to reveal more of ourselves in social contexts, this helps us reveal more of ourselves to ourselves – in our private reflections. And as we look to show up in more of our wholeness to ourselves, this helps us reveal more in social contexts. That’s the back and forth.

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