Let’s start with a wooden chair. For the chair to be an excellent chair, it must have integrity. If I present a wooden chair to you and suggest that it lacks integrity, you would wisely be wary before you sit down. What does it mean, though, to say a wooden chair lacks integrity?
A chair that lacks integrity is missing some key element and/or is not solidly built. Perhaps it is missing a leg, or the legs are all different lengths. Perhaps it is well put together, but the wood is fragile, like balsa; or, perhaps the wood is sturdy, like oak, but the chair is poorly constructed. The screws are not tight and the joints not properly glued. It could be that the seat and legs are solid, but the back is flimsy. Whatever you do, don’t lean back!
Any one of these qualities would be evidence that the chair lacked integrity.
To be clear, physical integrity has nothing to do with the fact that the chair’s size does not suit you or that the color is all wrong or that the chair is out of style. Integrity is not a matter of aesthetics or personal preference. Additionally, an uncomfortable cushion does not mean the chair itself lacks integrity although it could mean the cushion does.
Physical integrity, as with our wooden chair, is a combination of wholeness, solidity, and reliability. If the chair is not whole or not solid, it is not reliable and lacks integrity. Indeed, the chair in question is entirely unexcellent. You should consider standing.
In contrast, when we talk about the integrity of a person, we usually do not refer to physical integrity. For instance, we would not say that a football player who is easily knocked down lacks integrity any more than we would say that the solid build of another player is an indication of his integrity. When we refer to integrity in humans, it is not physical but moral integrity we are citing, and moral integrity must be held internally as well as practiced regularly. Moral integrity, lived day in and day out, builds resilience and leads eventually to the achievement of excellence.
Moral integrity has to do with the practice and application of personal principles, values, and ethics rather than material qualities. It is a matter of a person’s inner choices and guideposts, which may develop from or be informed by a number of sources, such as parenting, religion, school, philosophy, or society.
Human or moral integrity is not unlike the physical integrity we expect from a chair in that moral integrity too is marked by wholeness, solidity, and reliability. Integrity in a person must be complete. It must extend to every aspect of a person’s daily behavior and choices. To be whole, integrity cannot be compartmentalized: practiced in this situation but suspended in that other one. Moral integrity must be solid, able to withstand the buffeting it will face in daily practice. And it must be reliable, available to confront every challenging situation.
A Breaking Bad Interlude
The popular television drama Breaking Bad is as much about moral integrity as about drug dealing. It starts with nebbishy high school chemistry teacher Walter White moving through life with an enhanced sense of his own integrity, having sacrificed a lucrative career for a life of normality and professional ignominy. But his is not a solid integrity. A health crisis and related financial distress cause him to break with his own moral code. It turns out that all along his integrity was just a mask for stubborn pride. He even resents and rejects an offer of help from his former business partners who struck it big after he pulled out of their endeavor.
What is his workaround? He turns to cooking and selling crystal methamphetamine and adopts a ruthless persona he names "Heisenberg." He is so far gone that he starts wearing a pork pie fedora and sporting a hipster goatee. The man clearly has no bottom.
Certainly a man of more solid integrity would swallow his pride for the sake of his family and accept the money from his well-to-do friends, not turn to a life of crime. His personal abhorrence of and moral objections to the meth he manufactures and sells are immaterial. Indeed, his overweening pride in his abilities, which masquerades as integrity, transmogrifies into an insistence that he produce only the very highest quality meth. Walter White does indeed achieve excellence but only in a most vile domain.
White’s integrity is also not whole. Even as he rises to become a drug lord, he tries to maintain a modicum of integrity in his interactions with his family, but this effort, of course, fails. His commitment to integrity is just too compromised and compartmentalized. Soon, White’s reliability as a husband and father dissipates as he sinks into the morass of corruption borne of his own poor choices. Even his wife gets caught up in his dealings, and his DEA agent brother-in-law ends up dead. White inevitably abandons his family but, in a perverse burst of paternal devotion, extorts his former business associates to assure that his wife and kids are financially secure. Finally, he sacrifices his life to save that of his drug-dealing partner and surrogate son, thus demonstrating that, in truth, there is honor among thieves, but it is really, really twisted. Walter White's brand of integrity is a grotesquerie.
White’s lawyer, Saul Goodman (nee Jimmy McGill), is cut from a different cloth when it comes to integrity. In the Breaking Bad prequel series, Better Call Saul, Saul/Jimmy starts out life with a severe integrity deficiency, stealing from the till of his father’s store as a boy, only to mature into “Slippin’ Jimmy,” an inveterate con artist and grifter. He eventually straightens out, becomes a lawyer, and tries to stay in the moral lane, but the inchoate nature of his newfound integrity renders it weak in the face of temptation. His integrity lacks solidity.
By contrast, his brother, Charles, also a lawyer, adheres to a strict interpretation of the law and the legal profession and regards himself as a paragon of integrity. Unfortunately his commitment to integrity, while solid as it comes, is not whole as it does not extend even to his brother, whom he undermines at every turn. In fact, it is a conceit of the show that Charles’ spiteful exertions of professional and personal jealousy repeatedly undercut his brother’s attempts to establish and maintain his own sense and commitment to integrity. When Charles' integrity finally fails altogether, he can imagine no other resolution than to end it all.
Saul/Jimmy’s integrity is not solid. Charles’ integrity is not whole. Neither of them are reliable.
These shows are fictional, of course, and dramatically hyperbolic, but they offer good examples of the perils of weak and incomplete integrity as well as good television viewing.
While moral integrity must be whole, solid, and reliable, like our chair, it is not merely a static intention. It is a practice, a continuous course of action within the guidelines of principles that must be attended and adhered to. As Albert Camus said, “Integrity has no need of rules," and thus these guiding principles, whatever their derivation, must radiate from within. Integrity is not subject to a set of external regulations or protocols but is intrinsic to the person. Integrity is the application of strength of character.
Integrity is marked by neither stubbornness nor rigidity, which is why Walter White and Charles McGill lack it. They are too rigid: White in his personal pride and Charles in his professional pride. Their hubristic inflexibility causes them, when faced with challenges superior to their strength, to break.
In contrast, real and constant integrity builds resilience, that inner quality that enables one to snap back from adversity—even when that adversity is itself the result of a failure of integrity. Ultimately, integrity is a fount of many virtues.
As Lennie Bennet said, when integrity is so ingrained that it is a habit, excellence will ensue. Cutting corners, deceiving, shirking, evading, gaslighting, bullying, and bullshitting are all anathema to the habit of integrity. Anything built using these means and other fraudulent or facile methods, even if it succeeds, will be substandard, far less than it could have been.
Have no illusions: applying and maintaining integrity is difficult, and, like any human effort, it can sometimes lead to unintended consequences that must be addressed. The advantage is that anything pursued or built with integrity in mind will, at its core, always be solid and whole. You can rely on it.
At long last, the new year is upon us, and perhaps you are looking for a resolution. I have never been a big fan of setting resolutions for the new year since they seem to go by the by somewhere between January 2nd and January 31st, with the guilt setting in sometime around February 3rd. By Valentine's Day, all those resolutions seem to have been utterly abandoned and forgotten, but the guilt somehow lingers. At least that is my experience.
Since I started meditating a few years ago, I have come to understand that it is better to set intentions rather than resolutions. Intentions are more forgiving. If you slip up and don't meet your intention, you need only remind yourself that it was something you wanted to do not had to do, a pursuit more than a goal, and it then becomes much easier to absolve yourself and get back to that pursuit. A resolution is more final. The word even has "solution" built right into it. If you don't meet a resolution, you have failed. Cue the guilt! A resolution is a promise. An intention is an aspiration.
Whether you prefer resolutions or intentions, now is as good a time as any to reflect on the past and set some purposes for the future. I am going to propose a purpose for myself that will take some fortitude. I am going to stuff my ego in a sack and throw it in the river.
The act I am describing is one of neither homicide nor suicide. It is egocide, the murder of the narcissistic self. The ego,.
At this point, the sharp reader may object that professing to do such a thing is an act of narcissism itself. By drowning the ego you are paradoxically focusing on it and thereby nurturing it. Like advertisements and politicians, the ego thrives on being seen and acknowledged, and even negative attention nourishes it. Certainly, if you are indeed that sharpest of sharp readers, you would be right. Which is why this whole exercise sucks and why it is so crucial.
Every day, we confront situations that challenge our sense of self and imperil our complacency. What if, and stay with me here, what if those challenges are not threats? What if they are opportunities for self-discovery and growth.
I readily acknowledge that these challenges could very well result in the destruction of our sense of self-satisfaction and self-confidence. But if so, wouldn't that suggest that these self-assurances were unwarranted to begin with or fundamentally flawed? A more beneficial outcome would be to treat such challenges as a chance to stress-test our sense of identity and make adjustments to strengthen it through self-assessment and build resilience.
The challenges I speak of are too myriad and varied to list or describe, but they are common. Most often, they arrive in the form of of questions or criticism from other people or they occur within as self-doubt.
Always, though, how we receive them is entirely within our control.
Yup. I wrote that, and I can hardly believe it either. Frankly, I hate when people say things like "Oh, so and so is criticizing you? So what? Don't let it bother you. You're just giving them power." The reason such so-called advice is so annoying is because it shifts the burden to the victim and makes nonreactivity seem easy, within reach, and we all know how hard it is not to become defensive in the face of challenges to the self, which is only natural and, to a point, appropriate. And let's face it, other people can do horrible things to us. When I review just my past year, I can quickly compile a litany of grievances born of injustices, so I get it. But I also know, when I am being honest, that those grievances are all inside me. In fact, a little candid reflection reveals to me that the very people who committed injustices against me in the past year likely all congratulate themselves for having done some great service to the world in taking me on, for they, like me, are the heroes in their own stories. And knowing that fact makes the injustice sting all the worse. My ire rises, and my ego, beaten and battered, swells like like a welt on a bruise on an abrasion. Let it go? How can I?
Nonetheless, I owe it to myself to step back. What does it matter that they congratulate themselves for a job well done when I can prove incontrovertibly, I assure you, that they are incompetent and malevolent hypocrites? The kind of people the worst people consider the worst people. What does it do for me, exactly? Even as I write these words, I can feel the flesh of my face tingling, flush with anger and pain. All of it, though, is me. Just me. Just me. My self. My ego. It takes every bit of strength of purpose I have to gather my poor beaten and wounded ego, stuff it in a sack, tie the opening, walk it down to the river, and toss it in.
Disclaimer: No actual littering will take place during this little act of egocide.
My ego will be back, maybe a bit soggy, but it will return even before I pivot from the river to head home. The point is, though, that I must train myself to understand that my ego is both vulnerable and invincible. It requires protection, but I should also be willing to abandon it, to drown it. It won't die, and neither will I. I won't even suffer. And doing so gives me a modicum of agency over my own life and guides me in my next choices.
And this exercise must happen every day, maybe several times a day. It must happen in my personal relationships. It must happen in my professional relationships. Sometimes it even must happen in my casual encounters.
A Digression Concerning a Casual Encounter
Here I am, pushing my cart up the aisle of a grocery store. The aisles each have clearly marked directional arrows in this time of COVID in order to keep people flowing with and away from and not toward each other. And here is some guy, oblivious or arrogant, coming the wrong way. Worse still, the aisle is busy enough that now my path is blocked because of him. I could get angry. I could even say something. If it weren't for my mask, I could give him such a frowning he would not soon forget! We could have a confrontation. After all, I am doing everything in my power to keep both myself and others safe during this pandemic (yay, me!), and this guy couldn't be bothered (boo, he!). I could shame him for being a self-centered ass, and he could shame me for being a sheeple. Or I could just seethe with anger for the next little while in the hopes that my wrath will telepathically assault him and disrupt his smug contentment. Instead, I take a deep breath, I look straight ahead with a neutral expression. I am down at the river watching my poor ego, trapped in a sack, writhing as it goes under seemingly for the last time. It's a goner.
As soon as I have entered the next aisle, I am already engrossed in my search for clam juice. You don't want to ask an employee where the clam juice is. It is just too weird. How would that look? How embarrassing! Oh. See that? My stupid ego is back, and it is glowing with the pride in not reacting to that rude jerk. A paradox.
So that is my intention for the new year, for 2021: to learn to stuff my ridiculous ego in a sack, tie it tight, and flip the bloated thing into the river with great regularity and glee. Wish me luck.
By the way, I have another intention for the new year that will be much easier to pursue. I intend to really, really hate and resent this annus horribilis 2020.
One final note for those of an etymological turn: I had assumed that "sheeple" was a very recent neologism and was surprised that my spell check did not flag it. Turns out, according to Merriam-Webster (an authoritative source for American usage) the term dates all the way back at least to 1945. I also used the word "yay" in the same paragraph, which was, according to M-W, first used in 1963. That makes it a relative youngster compared to sheeple. Huzzah!
A short while back I wrote about the power of decency, but what about the superpower of decency?
Dr. Nichols' patient was struggling to breathe and begging the doctor to save his life. When his shirt was removed for treatment, the medical team, which Nichols described as "a Jewish physician, a Black nurse, and an Asian respiratory therapist," could see that his body was defaced with Nazi symbols, including a swastika tattooed prominently on his chest. As they set about treating the patient, Nichols reflected that a man with such emblems of hatred inked on his skin had likely devoted himself to devaluing, or worse, the lives of the very people working to save his. Nonetheless, the team prepared to intubate their patient, a procedure that would expose them to considerable risk of contagion in this age of COVID.
The scene Nichols paints deserves further rumination.
Think about it. Here we see a patient whose naked flesh proclaims his raw hatred for these individuals who risk their own health and lives to preserve his life even as they know their success would free him to continue to promote his noxious views and threaten their wellbeing and that of their families and loved ones..
Nazi tattoos are not some deplorable cosplay fad. They indicate a commitment to white supremacy and to classifying specific groups of people as subhuman or not quite human and decidedly intolerable. His Jewish doctor even recognized one tattoo as the insignia of the SS, who were responsible for designing and executing the "Final Solution," otherwise known as the Holocaust. Perhaps, you may argue, this patient had an explanation for the repugnant tattoos. Perhaps he got them in prison because he needed the protection of a gang, or some such thing. Perhaps he had or would come to regret them. But why so many? And why keep them?
Reasserting the Human in Humanist
Nichols describes himself as a humanist in his Twitter profile, which can indicate a number of things. Based on his story, I would guess that he means that he derives his morality from serving humanity rather than from the doctrine and mores of an established religion, dogma, or code. If I am right, Nichols' humble commitment to the service to others is a stellar example of humanist morality in action. Clearly, the point of his thread is not to garner praise for himself and his colleagues for doing their jobs. Indeed, the narrative culminates in a moment of crisis when, exhausted by months of battling COVID in the face of those who deny its existence and reflecting on the hatred this particular patient expresses via his body markings, Nichols hesitates.
Again, the story is about Nichols' moral dilemma in the fog of his exhaustion.
It is a story of human decency decently told in 280-character bites. It even starts in medias res. For Nichols and his colleagues, this nightmarish scenario is just the quotidian, the day-to-day routine. Worn down as he must be, he still constantly does the right thing, the decent thing, no matter his feelings. His story is a companion to that of Jodi Doering, a nurse in South Dakota who told her tale of moral outrage in the midst of gruesomeness on Twitter and CNN at around the same time. She spoke of patients who deny the existence of COVID and call her names even as they are dying of the disease. Like Nichols and his team, she continues to care for them in the face of their hateful contempt. Her Twitter profile, which now apparently lists her name as Jodi Orth (@jodiorth), has a banner that reads "Be a Good Human," sadly an increasingly radical stance. In fairness, I must note that her testimonial has been disputed as exaggerated, but I doubt the charge is true. Whatever the case, as Nichols observed, simply continuing to treat patients in the midst of COVID denial and hostility to medical personnel from a wide swath of the population is demoralizing in the extreme, and even more so in a place like South Dakota where the governor herself has abetted the spread of the disease and openly contributed to the widespread denial and consequent contempt for medical professionals.
These tales of frontline medical professionals, but two samples standing in for an untold number of told and untold stories, are more extreme than what most of us will ever experience. Still, they are clear instances of the power of decency, of remaining "a good human," in the face of horror.
I would go even further. For those of us in other walks of life, it is hard to imagine having to face anger, unreason, resentment, and hatred every day from the very people you are committed to serving, be they patients on a gurney or governors in the statehouse. Practitioners in other professions may confront similar dilemmas, (law enforcement officers, teachers, and, yes, even lawyers come to mind), but not perhaps in such stark terms and under such constant duress.
In this way, maintaining basic human decency, being a good human, is not just a power, but it is a superpower. It takes an extraordinary amount of fortitude to assert decency day in and day out even without the onslaught of abuse and offense that medical professionals, these human beings, face. Maintaining decency along with its attendant virtues of integrity and compassion is simple but not easy, for it is not enough to declare "I am an honorable person, a good human" or to merely intend to be a virtuous person. Decency demands constant vigilance, vigilance that itself is enervating, which is partially why Nichols flagged for a moment before proceeding to work on his patient.
Human decency, being a good person in the face of it all, is indeed a superpower. It is an act of heroism that may just save us all. While it is not as cool and fanciful as the ability to fly or turn invisible or punch through brick walls, it remains the only superpower that challenges our humanity and thereby the only one that can help make us fully human.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.