What exactly does it mean to be a people who care about integrity? A people who endeavor to live lives of integrity? The dictionary says that integrity has something to do with honesty and strong moral principles, and suggests that integrity conveys a sense of wholeness, a certain unity of value, principle, and action. That all sounds pretty good, but also perhaps not that hard, right? Act in line with your beliefs, speak what is true – what’s hard about that?
As in all things, what seems easy from a distance gets more complicated up close. As Unitarian Universalists, we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people, and yet even the smallest glance at the contents of most of our wardrobes would reveal clothing almost certain to have been made in conditions oppressive of the workers making that clothing. Or we believe in the acceptance of one another and encouragement to growth in our congregations, yet bristle if metaphorical language for the unknowable mystery of the universe steps too far or too frequently into terrain that triggers us. Intentionally or not, the message conveyed is that acceptance has boundaries and growth is for others.
In other words, the theme of integrity invites us to look squarely at our own hypocrisy in word and deed, much like the experience of having teenagers might. No one has a more finely attuned sense of justice nor a more sensitive detector for the gap between an adult’s stated principles and their actions than the nearest related teenager, and in much the same way, our engagement of integrity, in January, as we turn the corner into a new year invites us to take a good hard look in the mirror.
This month, we’ll take up that invitation. We’ll explore the compromises this world asks us to make and the shame that can arise when we feel we’ve fallen short. We’ll look at our country’s “original sin” of racism and see what progress we’ve made, if any. We’ll look at our relationship to gender, and how we’re meeting the invitation to be our whole selves. And in all of that, as we get sad and mad and happy and joyful and all the rest of the whole catastrophe* that is our complicated, imperfect lives, we will hold faith with each other.
We will hold faith with each other because ultimately, that is what integrity calls us to do. In the words of James Baldwin: “…nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”
*Thanks to Jon Kabat-Zinn for the notion that we show up for the “whole catastrophe” that is our lives.