This morning I want to say something about integrity. Admittedly, this is not a popular subject for this generation. As a group, I think pretty much follow the advice from the famous movie producer Samuel Goldwyn. He once said that the most difficult part of acting was being authentically honest before the audience. And how true that is. He went on to add, “once you can fake that, you’re in.”
I’ve wondered for a few years if some smart graduate student at Stanford isn’t going to write a dissertation on our generation titled ‘The Porno Era’ drawing together a number of disparate threads, the indirect and subtle ways that mainstreaming porno has altered the cultural background against which we live our lives now.
I first started wondering about it when these jihadists started videotaping their gruesome beheadings, which somehow seemed like they should be illegal to distribute. But they are not.
Then the Taliban got in on that game and it has been a regular medium for over a decade now, the latest these live shots of atrocities in Syria that are supposed to stoke our compassion but somehow they just seem to me to be oddly voyeuristic and unhealthy for the soul, almost like we are in love with death.
I thought the same thing of the photos and videos from Abu Grahib prison. The soldiers had taken photos and videos of themselves, pretty much like they were going to post pictures of a party that got out of hand to Facebook. What is it about our era that feels like we can and should film our body of work- and then post it somewhere?
Also from the file of ‘what were they thinking?’ we have the phenomenon of a pretty widespread practice of our bankers, like the traders at JP Morgan, that were selling Mortgage backed securities to people that were toxic. Even as they are doing it, they are shooting email to each other making jokes about the institutions stupid enough to buy these things like a bunch of fraternity boys at the bar after work. Unfortunately for them, they had to have their catty comments read back to them in the presence of the SEC, violating the cardinal rule of the internet era of “Do not hit send if your Mother can’t read this too.” It is all recorded and can be completely re-created.
What is striking to me is the response of the generation. Almost to a person in my extended family when I ask my children or their cousins about these things, they respond, ‘What is the big deal? everybody’s doing it.’ It is a response that brings to mind Voltaire who once said, “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” It is true that these are broad cultural trends which probably cannot be bucked but that does not mean they should not be addressed. I’m sure you’ve seen the plaque on the front of the Holocaust Museum in Washington that reads, “Thou shalt not be a victim. Thou shalt not be a perpetrator. Above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.” Don’t just go along with the flow either.
It is true that many of us work in professions that discourage thinking about integrity beyond the most minimal discourse. And it is also true that we genuinely don’t give it the due it deserves until we are of a certain age.
Spiritually, however, integrity is important. It is just hard to get it when you are young. The great psychoanalyst Erik Erikson described our psychosocial life cycle in 8 phases, the last phase- the ultimate phase- being “Integrity vs. Despair”. It is the question of whether your personal life is starting to cohere in meaning and wisdom or whether you are actually fracturing in futility and your life is starting to seem inane.  This ultimate phase is implicitly draw us all along, we just become more aware of it the closer we get to last phase of our life.
The importance of integrity was captured well in the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’. In the movie, Ryan is saved in the battles that followed the D-Day invasion at a considerable cost. He is rescued but literally dozens of other soldiers around him perish in the mission. In the after shock of battle, one of the officers comes up to him, just before he is about to be shipped back home. The officer says to him, ‘you got a chance for a life kid… don’t waste it. Earn this’ he says just before he dies.
Years go by, we know nothing of his Private Ryan’s civilian life, except that one day as an aging man, he travels back to the beaches at Normandy with his family and he finds the graves of the soldiers he served with, the soldiers that gave their lives that he might live. He is overcome with emotion, so his children leave him to his thoughts, wondering what he went through because he never told them, so like that generation.
Finally, his wife comes near him to support him. He looks at her and he says, “Tell me I am a good man.” She is confused. What he is trying to say is, “Tell me that I was worthy… Tell me that I didn’t waste it… Tell me this was meaningful… because the cost…” That is our conscience talking to ourselves and it is the right question about your life.
One of my colleagues has suggested that culturally we are living through a period of integrity deficit disorder. I like that phrase. Integrity deficit disorder comes from outside/in thinking. Outside/in thinking permeates our media, and it particularly dominates the ethos of the entertainment we serve abundantly to our children.
We have whole T.V. channels devoted to nothing else than an outside in approach to life- the E channel, Style. The magazine rack is simply filled with devotion to glamour, image, popularity, and the culture of perquisites. It is all about who has what, who’s in and who’s not; it is all about power plays, plot and intrigue. It is all about who is getting who, who is flaunting what. It’s all about the bling bling and being cool.
We feed our children a steady diet of reality More whacked out housewives, more nutty people living together being mean to each other at the Jersey shore or Hollywood, the wonders of liposuction, Temptation Island, tours of the homes of the rich and famous- on and on an on- and we wonder why the young people we hire seem to be more focused on the perq’s than the actual mission of the job itself. We wonder where this sense of growing entitlement comes from? We keep them consistently focused on what is outside for motivation and we wonder why they have so little interior motivation, so little interior moral compass.
Yet, we know that spiritually speaking, it is not the exterior things that make us happy or bring us abiding contentment. True fulfillment, as Jesus says, comes from having your inside world put right. There is an ancient proverb from Confucius that says, “To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life. In short, we must first set our hearts right.”
The Dalai Lama once remarked that we cannot, we should not wait for the leaders of the world to bring us world peace. “It lies within each of us individually. Peace, for example, starts within each one of us. When we have inner peace, we can be at peace with those around us.” True contentment comes from living from the inside out.
Our children, so we are told, cheat with a regularity unknown to previous generations. Part of it is that they can. They lived in that short window of internet access just before internet responsibility. But when I talk to them, the way they justify it is that it is all simply a means to an end. The end is just to get into a good school so I can put myself on the A job track so I can live the A lifestyle. That is the way that kids think.
But there comes a time in your life, actually many times in your life, when you pause for a reflective moment. Sometimes, it is near the end of a chapter of your life, when you graduate, sometimes it is after a crisis that you have endured, sometimes it is after you have accomplished all your goals. And sometimes it is after you have violated a basic principle and embarrassed yourself or someone close to you. You say to yourself, “Why am I here? What am I supposed to accomplish? What am I supposed to be doing?” At these moments, you come face to face with none other than… yourself.
The spiritual question before all of us, is what are we to become? Not other people, not people in general… What are you supposed to become? What is your potential to realize? What are your gifts and powers? What is inside of you?
It is a very personal question. Rabbi Zusya got it right. He said that in the after life, God is not going to ask him why he wasn’t Moses, why he wasn’t Abraham or Gandhi, why he wasn’t some bigger than life person. No, he said, God will ask me, ‘why were you not Zusya?’ Why didn’t you become the unique person that God wants you to be. That is the toughest challenge of all is it not? Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that “What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.” We are our own biggest project, for better and for worse. I love St. Augustine’s reflection on his own moral and spiritual complexity at mid-life. He said, “I have become a problem unto myself.”
The point of integrity from the Christian point of view is not that we become moral perfectionists, the point is that we are on the road toward improvement. It is not that we don’t make mistakes but that we work towards reconciliation of those things in us that are a problem to ourselves. We are not a collection of righteous saints but a community of forgiven sinners (Dietrich Bonhoffer was right).
And a mighty struggle these personal issues really are for all of us. I love Teddy Roosevelt’s fighting description of the challenge of the self that he gave in a lecture at, of all places, the Sorbonne in Paris. “It is not the critic who counts” he said, “not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of the deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst knows that if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” Most of our life-long character struggles feel pretty much like wrestling with the monster inside of us.
It is important that we are on the path, that we give some tangible evidence that we are not only wrestling with our demons but that we are corralling them, particularly as we get past mid-life.
One way you can see this is in marriage. There comes a point in the course of a marriage when integrity in your spouse becomes a substantial issue. You have to believe in your spouse. You have to trust them. You have to respect them.
When I was 22 and a pastor in a rural farming community in Kentucky I heard a woman say something I couldn’t really understand for years to come. She was talking of her husband of 50 some odd years just after he died. She said, “I reckon he wasn’t the purtiest boy I’d ever seen; I reckon he wasn’t the smartest neither; but Earl McComb was a sturdy man.” He was a sturdy man. That is not a bad image. The bible has a wonderful hope that we will grow to become like the Cedars of Lebanon, those great tall trees that provide shade for the next generation. Those great tall trees that you can see from a great distance and fix your coordinates on the moral landscape around you; Those great tall trees that have lived through flood and drought, something sturdy that you can grab onto. That is what we hope to become.
I would not have known how important that is in marriage, in families. But over the years, when I have listened to people reflecting on why their marriages failed, this motif has come up more regularly than I imagined. It wasn’t the affair as such, though the breach of trust and the sense of sensual rejection was deep; It wasn’t just the poor communication, though that needed to be fixed; it wasn’t just our independent lives, though we need to change our whole approach… it wasn’t any single thing that you can point to… which is what makes it so hard to articulate. And it won’t be said in public either because it is too personal… but people make a judgment call going into the future and what they say to themselves and they usually don’t even articulate it clearly is “I’m not going to be able to respect this person in the future… Sum total, going forward, we won’t manage mutual respect… and that is a very sad day, a very personal day.
Respect and integrity grow in importance in marriage. I think of that wonderful poem by Roy Croft that says “I love you/not only for what your are/but for what I am when I am around you.” What a wonderful expression of respect for your spouse. How much more meaningful that phrase becomes the deeper that you grow together.
It becomes an important key as our relationships mature and become more profound. It rarely finds articulation in our culture, bound as we are by the images of youth and sex. In the earliest phase of our life, sex and sensuality is all physical. It is all about image and physique. It is outside/in in approach.
But as we mature in our relationships, the physical gradually becomes overshadowed by the spiritual, and spiritual issues become the key to sustaining more profound intimacy and sharing. Respect and integrity take on greater meaning.
In our mature relationships, we can find ways to overcome physical image and physique issues. That is because the locus of gravitas is shifting toward the spiritual dimension. Genuine respect, genuine integrity become more important for intimacy. It is no longer about the physical alone. We evolve in the direction inside/out.
The pay off spiritually is that we have substantial relationships, we become substantial people. We have a sense of meaning in our lives, a sense of worth and purpose. The bible speaks of a simple but profound hope that one day we will live to see our children’s children grow and develop. The hope is that we can become sturdy people that can positively shape the spiritual character of the rising generations. Our sense of meaning and purpose are intrinsically grounded and lived out in these relationships. Spiritually that is what is really real. Spiritually, this is where we find an internal contentment and peace that lasts.
So this week, when you find yourself in conversation with the cultured spiritual cynics that sneer that the world is nothing but power and fashion, popularity and perq’s, let it all recede into the boring, droning cant that it really is… like the Blah, Blah, Blah in the Peanuts cartoon that comes on whenever adults speak… That is all this is too… a lot of immature, frustrated blah, blah, blah outside/in approach to life. That is only the most superficial dimension of human existence. There is a lot more to you still. And the most important part remains to be plummed. You are a project in the making, don’t forget that. Keep your eye on the prize. Why are you here? What are you supposed to accomplish? Who are you supposed to become? Amen.
 For a quick overview see Erik Erikson, Identiy and the Life Cycle (Norton: 1980), p. 178 for the worksheet overview.
 see www. Acesonline.org/Leadership/illustrations/illustration_94.htm