There is a strength of character that we rarely see in person. We see it in the movies. We see it in fictional characters that we love. Luke Skywalker. Leia. Obi Wan. Harry Potter. Dumbledore. Hermione. Marry Poppins. Optimus Prime. Bumble Bee. Neo. Morpheus. Trinity.
Each of them has a resolve so intense, that they don’t break from it, no matter what the circumstances. They possess an unflinching resolve to their values and ideals. An evil character can also have those qualities as well, but their motivations come from a dark place. Their resolve is motivated by revenge, jealousy, guilt, shame, the darker side of humanity.
Where do we see this now? It has become an uncommon trait, possessed by the few, rather than it being something that we value as a culture. The word “integrity” is not synonymous with “American.” Though I think “naive” would be what others might believe is associated with it. You can try to have it but when applied to the default world, you have to make compromises with an extremely unfair system, where it is often necessary to make sacrifices of integrity for survival sake. Whether that is to save your job, please your family, keep the peace, save the relationship, values and personal happiness can quickly end up on the chopping block.
This all seems pretty bleak. So what is the answer? How do we come back from this place we have culturally created for ourselves?
This brings me to a formative memory I had as a young teenager. May I share it with you?
There was often a rivalry between my father and his mom, my grandmother. Every time I came home from a visit with her he would want to know everything she said about him or my mom, or what she thought about us as a family. He would make me go through everything that was said and then tell me how she was lying or trying to manipulate me. This went on for years. I mean easily over a decade. One day as a teenager, I came home, he sat me in the chair in the living room under the track lighting in my face and started grilling me about grandma. Interrogation 101.
“I am sick and tired of you interrogating me every time I go over there!” I had never back talked my father ever before. (My mother forbade it because of his temper.) He stormed off and later grounded me for a month. In that altercation I made a promise to myself. No matter what my father took away from me, tv, books, even if he took away everything that I owned, he could not take away my mind, nor my ability to be happy and mentally entertain myself. It was a pivotal moment for me.
My personal integrity stems from that formative moment, and what it came to mean for me. Integrity had nothing to do with the personal opinions of other people, my father, or anyone else. It had to do with my own personal values, and if I was living up to those standards I had set for myself. (NOT set by my dad) As a result I have a very strong work ethic, for example. I do things because they need to be done, not because I was asked by a boss to do them. Similarly, at home, I will clean something because my own space needs a certain level of cleanliness, not because it is my turn, or even my mess. Even if others made the mess that is immaterial to me, it needs to be done, so I do it.
Integrity is a personal value. It can also be a cultural value, depending on your culture. Watch any movie about honor, keeping promises, and trying to keep your word… those values are based around personal integrity and making sure that your words and actions are in alignment. For example, the boy scouts value integrity and keeping your promises. That would be a culture that shares that value.
Now granted, people have their own interpretations of personal integrity. One person can value independence, and can act accordingly… seeing their integrity intact by not asking for help and figuring it out on their own. Another person could value teamwork, and maintaining their integrity by making sure everyone was included. Both values would be considered work ethics that are admirable in moderation, but sometimes, a job or circumstance my require a compromise. A loner may need to let go of their ego and ask for help. Someone who is used to doing things in groups may need to be resourceful and figure something out on their own.
I would like to see this value return to our culture. There used to be a time when it was important to help others, be kind, honest, be diligent, accurate, loving, helpful, etc. That people once saw these kinds of attributes as a strength, not a weakness. I believe the best way to do that is to embody these values through daily actions. We cannot make laws for people to be kind to one another, but we can be kind. We can culturally reward it, so that it becomes valuable again. So the next time we see a character with integrity, more than admiring it, we can relate to it.