Reading by Bob Barret, from NPR's "This I Believe"
I believe in integrity. It's a belief that's tested in those gut-wrenching moments when conflicting values pull me in opposite directions. Back in the early 1980s, I was in a training session for mental health workers who were volunteering to provide counseling to cancer patients who had a terminal diagnosis. Each of us was given 16 index cards and asked to write on each the names of people, abilities, things and values we hold dear. In the course of our imagined cancer, we had to surrender cards or somewhat abruptly have them taken from us. At the end I had two cards: One read "Integrity" and the other read "My Family." How could I choose between these two; such a choice was unfair and impossible. My initial thought was that I would give up my integrity, because I loved my daughters and would want their comfort at my death. But then, I would realize that dying without integrity might be worse. I drifted back and forth, not wanting to choose. In the end, I uneasily kept the integrity card because I reasoned that if I lost my family, integrity would still be possible; if I lost my integrity, my life would be without value.
Sermon by Rev. Tom
A Unitarian Universalist died, and to their surprise discovered that there was indeed an afterlife. The angel in charge of these things told them, “Because you were a doubter and a sceptic, you will be sent to Hell for all eternity—which, in your case, consists of a place where no one will ever disagree with you again!” Our proud heritage encourages us to doubt, to question, to reflect on everything, and in particular, as Unitarian Universalists, we question beliefs, ethics, meaning, and purpose, acknowledging that none of the truths we come up with are static. Throughout our lives we are exposed to new ideas, beliefs, experiences, and people that expand our world-view and impact how we choose to live in the world. In other words, we believe that revelation is not sealed. Let us hold that thoughts as we consider the rather squishy concept of integrity.
I’m going to go out on a limb here—I bet every person in this room believes they are a person of integrity. Don’t all Unitarian Universalists have integrity; isn’t that inherent in living our seven Principles. Isn’t that why some of you chose to become members of a Unitarian Universalist congregation? Because you discovered a group of people who live their values—deeds not creeds—with integrity. Honesty, living our ethical standards, being morally upright, hearing, assessing, verifying, and then following our inner voice? Well, I don’t think living a life with integrity is easy, even for Unitarian Universalists.
I want to share a few thoughts and stories as you consider what integrity means to you and what it looks like in your life. Let’s start with driving. During the many, many, many times you are watching other people drive and you see them speed, cut someone off, blast across three lanes of traffic, drive too slow, or stop in the middle of the road for no apparent reason, how do you judge that person? An idiot driver? A menace? At best, inconsiderate, at worst—what? A murderer? Now let’s say your were 15 minutes late for, say a doctor’s appointment at one of those practices that cancels your appointment and charges you for the appointment if you don’t get there on the dot, and if you just stand on the gas a little, cut a few inches—or feet—off your safe passing zone, zip over the turn lane and shriek in the parking lot. How do you judge yourself? Oh, this isn’t how I usually drive. People shouldn’t be so upset, I’m watching what I am doing. I know I have been tempted to do that on more than one occasion. According to Michael R. Cunningham, a professor of psychology at the University of Louisville, such discrimination stems from the difference in perception of self as compared to others: “We evaluate other people based upon their behavior; we evaluate ourselves based upon our intentions.” Hence, it’s easier for us to overlook our own lapses of judgement than it is to overlook the questionable behavior of other people. And author on personal and professional development Beverly Flaxington writes: “While we attribute the unethical behavior of other people to their “badness,” oftentimes we rationalize our own actions in order to find justification for the choices that we make. “I was simply following orders,” “Everyone else was doing it,” “It’s not illegal, so it’s not wrong,” or “No one [I know saw me do it],”…It’s easy to cut yourself some slack when everyone else around you — including celebrities, politicians, professional athletes and large corporations — seems to be bending or breaking ethical rules. It’s hard to stick to ethical standards when it seems that few others are doing so.”
So if we bend the rules, and we do, just like everyone else does, if we cut ourselves some slack, if we attribute good intentions to ourselves and not others, what does integrity really mean then? I’m not talking about dictionary definitions here. I mean what qualifies as integrity in this slippery environment where “yes” means “no”, and “no” means “maybe” and “maybe” means whatever we want it to at a particular moment. And we find ourselves doing the right thing most of the time, unless it seems reasonable or easier to do otherwise. Living with integrity is challenging, especially when most of the time, no one is watching us, unless you count Google and Facebook. Author of the Narnian Chronicles and lay theologian C. S. Lewis wrote: “Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching.” And to offer a quote from someone who isn’t a dead white guy and who aspires to help others with her wisdom and book selections, Oprah Winfrey said: “Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody's going to know whether you did it or not.” We don’t go around with a sign around our neck saying “I have integrity”. Signs, after all, are easy to remove, like a wedding ring. The sign—the ring—isn’t the thing that has integrity—it’s the vow you took, and how you live that vow. So when we say that we are Unitarian Universalists, is that like having a sign around our necks? Do we think others believe that because we are Unitarian Universalists, we live a life with integrity? What, if anything, does saying to ourselves that we are Unitarian Universalists and attending Sunday service do exactly? Does it make a difference in how we act when no one is watching?
I think living a life with integrity, whether a Unitarian Universalist or not, whether others know we are doing it or not, is difficult. In the reading today by Bob Barret, you heard him struggle with an exercise that he did at a mental health workshop. He was given blank cards and asked to write the names of people, abilities, things and values he held dear. And over the course of the workshop the cards were taken away, as part of a simulation of the things we lose as we approach the end of our lives. His last two cards were integrity and family. In the end, he uneasily kept the integrity card because he reasoned that if he lost his family, integrity would still be possible; if he lost his integrity, his life would be without value. Well, there is more to the story. His reflection on this exercise came at a time in his life when he was getting ready to come out to his wife and daughters as gay. His struggle was this: does he cause pain to his family by coming out or does he stay in the closet and live without integrity, without being honestly and authentically who he is?
What if you did the same exercise? What if it came down to two cards for you and one of them was integrity? What if your other card was health, family, friends, financial stability, significant other, children, job? How would you respond to the choice? When I was considering this exercise, I would like to tell you that of course I would choose integrity, but knowing myself, if I were dying, I would have a hard time not choosing family. Hard choices—really hard choices-- make integrity so difficult. Acting with integrity can result in pain, conflict, and people treating you differently. It can also result in feeling a deep peace in your mind/heart/spirit because you are living authentically. Acting with integrity can result in not having to always consider how other people will react before you respond. It can result in more consistently living the ethics, morals, and principles that you hold dear.
Before I share some thoughts on how we might live a life with integrity, I have one more story to share. A few days ago a man in Philadelphia robbed a Rite Aid Store. Pharmacies are robbed all the time; what was unique about this robbery is that we had the opportunity to peek into the mind of the person robbing the drug store, to better understand why he was taking such an extreme action. The man, “wearing a gray hoodie and dark gloves… took an item to the register. The store clerk can be seen scanning the item and putting it in a plastic bag. Then, according to a police statement…the man handed a note to the employee that read in part, ‘Give me all the money. I’m sorry, I have a sick child. You have 15 seconds.’” So for the purpose of this argument, let’s assume what the man wrote isn’t a scam. Let’s suppose it’s the truth. Let’s suppose that this man is acting on the same exercise that Bob Barret did. If his last two cards are obeying the law and saving my child. Would he be living with integrity if he chose to rob the Rite Aid Store to save his child? What would you choose? Put aside our Unitarian Universalist tendency to infinitely debate the merits of each choice just for a moment, and try to answer the hypothetical choice from your gut. What would you choose?
I am not sure I know the right answer, or even if there is a “right answer” to the questions I am posing. Realizing that there is no real right answer, let me offer some strategies that I use that aid me in living a life with more integrity. One strategy that aids me in this complicated world is choosing some ethics, morals, principles, and purposes that I hold dear, that I aim towards in living my life. I regularly attend to them, hold them in the front of my mind, and seek out places and people, like you all, that affirm those ethics, morals, principles and purposes that I hold dear. You might say I hold onto them like a sign I wear, but the thing is no-one knows I am wearing the sign. It’s invisible, just for me to see. It’s like a vow to myself.
Another strategy I use is talking with others I trust, especially when considering a difficult decision. I am not seeking their advice. I’m using trusted people as a soundboard, as a way to process my thoughts and feelings. I do tell the listener, if they have a thought that might help me look deeper within myself, I would value that. Again that is not advice. It might be “have you had to make this kind of decision before and how did that turn out” or “I notice that you are crying or seem angry or tense as you talk.” Something I might not be aware of. Something that helps me look within for an answer.
Here are a couple other ideas. While I have thought about and used these ideas in my life, I’ve found them most clearly stated by Beverly Flaxington in Psychology Today (Like No One Is Watching: Acting ethically when others don’t always do so. By Beverly Flaxington, Psychology Today, oct 27, 2015)
“Listen to your self-talk. Do you search for excuses for yourself? Do you try to rationalize your questionable decisions?” I can tell you this one really hits home for me. A friend of mine really wanted and applied for job. She told me about it in confidence. I thought about putting in for the same job, an Employee Assistance Professional at NASA JSC. Government job—I’d be set for life. I rationalized that I was more qualified; I knew more about the people who worked there and the environment. I had consulted for NASA a few times. Fortunately, I noticed my racing thoughts and rationalization, the nagging guilt, and the physical agitation, for me signs of being out of balance within myself. I stopped before taking an action that I would have regretted, that wouldn’t be consistent with my values and how I lived my life.
Here’s another idea: “Question everything. Don’t accept something as true only because you have been told that it is. The more you know, the better-informed decisions you will be able to make. Two people can look at the same situation and one can find it ethically sound, whereas the other —[find it] debatable at best… Question your own judgement, too. More often than not, our opinions and decisions are affected by the many biases that we subconsciously hold, and therefore must be re-evaluated for ethical soundness.” While serving a church in Cedar Rapids, I heard of an evangelical minister who preached that marital equality in Iowa was worse than the city-wide flood that devastated much of downtown Cedar Rapids. The local television station and newspaper reached out to me, the local liberal minister, to comment on this preacher’s message. I did not hesitate and was clear that his message was destructive and hurtful to the LGBTQ community and that this minister seemed wholly unaware of the power of the pulpit. After I did this, I received an email from him. He didn’t understand why people were so upset with him. At that point, I started questioning whether the approach I had taken was the best one, the one with most integrity. After much questioning and self-reflection I decided to meet with this young evangelical minister and mentor him, to discuss with him why people were so upset with him and how he might grow from this experience. That act felt like it had more integrity.
How to be a person of integrity is for each of us to consider. Living a life with more integrity takes intention and effort; it doesn’t happen without paying attention to ourselves, our mind and body, our emotions and spirit. It is too easy for us to ignore or miss the many clues that pop up when we are letting our integrity slip away. My friends, it is worth it to make the effort from time to time, especially when making a big decision or when reconsidering your world view or what is right and wrong, to examine your heart. Also listen to that still small voice within, empower the part of you that questions and doubts, bring people into your life whom you can trust to really listen to you, and hold on to what is good and true for you even if it is a handful of earth. Hold on to what you believe even if it is a tree which stands by itself. And hold on to what you must do even if it is a long way from here. Blessed be.