Integrity, part 2

I’m reminded of how democracy is a skill. The habits of hearing diverse viewpoints, of weighing other people’s interests and perspectives with our own, of running meetings, and participating in meetings so that your voice, and all voices, are heard without your voice or any voice dominating, of reaching decisions efficiently when they have to be efficient, and of taking time to consider more complicating factors when efficiency isn’t so pressing, and of being able to discern the appropriate weight to give to efficiency – these are all skills: skills we can learn and skills we can improve. Meeting in committees is how we learn and hone those skills, and a populace that has come to find committee work onerous, that increasingly avoids it, is a populace that is losing the skills of democracy – a populace that is growing ripe for acquiescing to authoritarianism.

The skills of democracy are the skills of love. This is how equality of concern and respect is realized, how inherent worth and dignity of every person is affirmed and promoted. If spirituality is the meaning our lives have through being part of something bigger than ourselves, then democratic practice is quintessential spiritual practice.

Our collective health and wholeness, our communal well-being, is a function of every voice being cared for enough to be heard, all needs and interests taken into consideration – and no voice dominating, overbearing, or becoming dictatorial. In other words: democracy.

In the ideal democracy, which actual democracies sometimes approach, everyone has a seat at the table, and everyone at the table is there to serve the greater good to the best of their capacity to discern it – to serve the flourishing of the group for the sake of the freedom of its members, and to serve the freedom of its members for the sake of the flourishing of the group. The skills of democracy – the skills of e pluribus unum, of fashioning from many, one wholeness – are also the skills of personal integrity.

Each of us is an unruly and raucous parliament of voices, each voice looking out for one of your many and competing interests. Your decisions are products of constantly shifting coalitions of inner voices that are able to, for a time, have the votes to get motions passed. No single voice is in charge in there. You aren’t a monarchy. You’re a democracy.

But democracies can get distorted. Certain interests can manage to hold disproportionate power and ignore and suppress certain other voices. The same thing happens to us individually. At its healthiest, a democratic state or a person, hears all voices, allowing none to gain enough power to suppress any. Where all the voices are integral, and integrated, there is integrity – wholeness. E pluribus unum is then an unfolding reality, whether of a people or of a person.

Integrity is never a finished product. We get broken – and bringing the parts back together, re-integrating into a whole – is the ongoing project of life: always healing, never healed. Rachel Naomi Remen is an M.D. with a psychological approach to people with life-threatening illness. Her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, is a book about healing, about wholeness, about the integrity that comes to us slowly and takes us unawares, yet can appear full-blown in times of crisis or loss. There’s a selection from Kitchen Table Wisdom in your Journey Group Packet this month, and you’ll have a chance to explore that passage in your group.

I’d like to leave you with a different story from Kitchen Table Wisdom – a story about the emergence of wholeness, of integrity, from brokenness. It’s a story of a young man who lost his leg – his leg had to be removed at the hip to save him from bone cancer. This young man was one of Dr. Remen’s patients. She writes:
“He was twenty-four years old when I started working with him and he was a very angry man with a lot of bitterness. He felt a deep sense of injustice and a very deep hatred for all well people, because it seemed so unfair to him that he had suffered this terrible loss so early in life. Over the course of more than two years, slowly a profound shift began. He came to look beyond himself, to reach out to others who had suffered severe physical losses, to make visits. Once he visited a young woman who was almost his own age. It was a hot day in California. He was in running shorts, and his artificial leg showed as he entered her hospital room. The young woman had lost both her breasts to cancer. And she was so depressed that she would not even look at him. The nurses had left a radio playing, so, to get her attention, he unstrapped his leg, and began dancing around the room on one leg, snapping his fingers to the music. She looked at him in amazement, and then burst out laughing and said, 'Man, if you can dance, I can sing.'” (Remen)
A year later, Remen says,
“We sat down to review our work together. He talked about what was significant to him and then I shared what was significant in our process. As we were reviewing our two years of work together, I opened his file and there discovered several drawings he had made early on. I handed them to him. He looked at them and said, ‘Oh, look at this.’ He showed me one of his earliest drawings. I had suggested to him that he draw a picture of his body. He had drawn a picture of a vase, and running through the vase was a deep black crack. This was the image of his body and he had taken a black crayon and had drawn the crack over and over again. He was grinding his teach with rage at the time. It was very, very painful because it seemed to him that this vase could never function as a vase again. It could never hold water. Now, several years later, he came to this picture and looked at it and said, ‘Oh, this one isn’t finished.’ And I said, extending the box of crayons, ‘Why don’t you finish it?’ He picked a yellow crayon and putting his finger on the crack, he said, ‘You see, here – where it is broken – this is where the light comes through. And with the yellow crayon he drew light streaming through the crack in his body.” (Remen)
That man’s one-leggedness became the way that he was able to shine in this world. The broken-ness brings emergence of a new wholeness.

When we are cracked open, we may then discover the integrity which had been hidden.

May it be so. Amen.

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