Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Personal Integrity

Recently, I have been faced with some difficult situations with people around me, which has brought the topic of personal integrity to the forefront of my mind. Normally, this concept is unconscious, queitly guiding me in my decisions and interactions with others. Lately, however, it has emerged as a recurring theme in the constant dialogue in my head, as I naviate my way through delicate, and sometimes volatile, interactions with others.

Personal integrity and morality go hand in hand. Morality is the basic concept of "right vs. wrong", and is defined by a combination of society, culture, history and religious teachings. Integrity is a superset of morality; that is, someone with integrity will utilize their sense of right and wrong to make the choice they feel is most appropriate.

Morality in itself is fairly well-defined in today's society. Don't steal. Don't lie. Don't hurt other people (except in self-defense of course). Be honest. Keep your promises. Honor your commitments, especially within the context of an intimate relationship. Respect other people's commitments. These messages are taught to us by our parents and teachers, and are reinforced by countless others along the way.

Integrity is less cut-and-dry, and is variably defined depending on who you ask. The focus of my thought processes of late have been on three aspects of integrity that I think are most important and dominant in the realm of my own consciousness. Over the years, I have continuously endeavored to apply these concepts to every facet of my daily life. I still continue this quest to this day.

Integrity means considering other people's feelings, not just my own.

When I was a teenager, like most others that age, I had a selfish streak in me. I am not in the least bit proud of this, however, it was who I was at that time. Part of my coming-of-age was to start thinking of other people's feelings and opinions, and valuing them as important, instead of thinking only about myself.

Growing up, the strong-armed, my-way-or-the-highway approach was the only method used by my family members to influence others. That was all I knew, and hence, the only basis I had to work with. Undoubtedly, it was the cause of many of my interpersonal issues as a child and a teenager.

Over time, I started becoming more sensitive to how my words, actions and choices could potentially affect those around me. As my circle grew, and I interacted with a wider variety of personalities, I learned that there were many more effective methods of handling conflict with others.

Slowly, a metamorphosis occurred. Instead of always demanding my way, I approached situations calmly, with the intent to work together for a mutually-acceptable compromise. Instead of concerning myself solely with only my own needs, I also considered, and put high importance on, the needs of others. Sometimes, the group decided on my suggestions, other times, I acquiesced for the greater good. The key to success was balance.

As I changed my own attitude, outlook and approach, I found that others reacted much more positively. As Steven Covey so eloquently wrote in "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People", a win-win solution is a worthy and desirable goal. I made that goal my own. With this growing ability to show respect for others, and to negotiate and compromise for win-win solutions, I was able to build deeper, more trusting, and more mature relationships with those around me.

Of course, one must always be cognizant of the possibility of giving too much, and compromising one's own happiness by placing oneself as last priority. I have been guilty of this in the past, when I thought that giving and sacrificing would ensure another person's love and acceptance. Creating an equilibrium between one's needs and those of others comes with time, practice, and the gentle setting of personal boundaries. I have made great headway in this journey over the past year, and am now in a much better place than ever to ensure this balance.

Integrity means being the bigger person.

Throughout my life so far, I have witnessed a number of disputes amongst friends and family, and seen firsthand the effects of various players' choices in dealing with their hurt, anger and disappointment. I have seen close friendships broken up, irreparably, over minor issues that turned into dealbreakers when both sides refused to budge. I have seen grudges held for decades, fracturing families and spreading distrust and hate. I have seen the detrimental effects of unbounded pride that often transforms relatively minor disputes into all-out wars.

Two of my uncles, (one blood related, one by marriage) maintained a continuous, bitter feud for decades. None of us younger generation were ever told why they were fighting; I have to wonder if they even remembered themselves. All I knew was that, for as long as I could remember, we had to keep the two groups far apart - or only invite one side - to any family gathering.

Tragically, the uncle by marriage passed away at the age of 57, after a 2-year battle with cancer. At the funeral, the surviving feuding uncle (the brother of the widow) showed up to pay his respects. When it came time for the family-only time, however, he was asked to leave. By his own siblings.

The feud continued, even beyond the grave.

This begs the question - was whatever they were fighting about really that important ? Was the reason for their disagreement worth all the animosity, the bitterness, and the perpetual war of wills that spanned decades of time ?

Not knowing the details, I am not in a position to judge. Only those involved can answer those questions. My guess is that it eventually became less about the issue itself, and more about winning the battle. Since both sides refused to budge, the impasse continued for years.

Resentment is a poison. A filthy, black, reeking poison that infects the hearts and minds of everyone nearby. If left to fester, its stench spreads far and wide, stifling everything in its path, affecting all facets of the lives of those involved.

In my own past, I have been taken advantage of, hurt and wronged more times than I can possibly remember. However, I have resolved to never hold a grudge, even when given a perfectly justified reason to do so. Instead, I learn the lessons that I need to learn, limit or cease my dealings with the person in question, and move forward with a clear conscience, knowing I have taken the high road and refused to succumb to the poison. Revenge is not necessary; the best response is to hold my head high, and not let a malicious adversary exert any control over my life or my sense of well-being.

Both sides of my family have had their share of disagreements in recent years. Even so, I talk to everyone, respect everyone, and refuse to become involved in the drama. When needed, I am a peacekeeper; otherwise, I stay out of it. This strategy has worked well so far.

The families involved in the dispute between my uncles have slowly started reintegrating themselves since the funeral. I am delighted that they were able to mend fences and, at very least, be cordial to one another. They are, after all, family. There is no restoring the years of lost time, however, there are still many more years left to build a relationship.

Integrity means treating everyone with respect and fairness.

One of the things I have learned from my emergency medical training is that one should never pass judgment on a patient. A good provider never bases their treatment of a patient on their own opinion of that person's worth.

Someone once asked me if I would stop and help a mass murderer who was injured in an accident. Why should I try to help that person ? Why save his life ? Why does he deserve my assistance ?

My answer: Of course I would help him, just as I would any other human being. It is not my job, nor my place, to judge a person's worth. I leave that to the legal system and to the higher power. I help my fellow human beings when I can. Opinions about their worthiness are not my concern.

Showing respect in every situation, however, is difficult. Often it is unconscious; we act bristly with a rude store clerk, we snap at our belligerent coworker, we take our sweet time answering emails from demanding customers. It happens to all of us. Integrity is temporarily putting a lid on our own feelings, and treating everyone with an equal amount of respect.

Of course, if nobody sees you flipping them the bird over the phone, then it doesn't count, right ? :)

I admit that I still have some work to do in this area. Just the other day, I found myself becoming a little more aggressive than I would prefer while dealing with a difficult and combative coworker. I realize that my handling of these situations needs improvement, and have started formulating a plan on how better to deal with it in the future. I know I need to work on my naturally defensive reaction when I feel that a peer is exerting an inordinate amount of pressure or criticism on me. This is an ongoing quest, and part of my continuing mission of self-improvement.

There is a letter-sized, laminated poster on the wall by my computer, printed with an excerpt from "Life's Little Instruction Book". One of the lessons on this little gem is:

"Live so that when others think of fairness, caring and integrity, they think of you."

I hope one day to make this come true.

These three aspects of integrity - considering others, being the bigger person, and treating everyone with fairness and respect - are the stepping stones to that precious goal.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, Slnky - one of my favorite expressions is: "Integrity is what you do when no one is looking."

- Jennifer

August 31, 2005 at 10:07:00 AM PDT  

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