Integrity and Conscience

Because of recent events in the world of American politics, I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about integrity, honesty, and conscience, and I haven’t been too pleased with the present state of any of them in our public discourse.  When I was growing up, honesty was held up by adults as the epitome of character traits for which we were all aiming.  If you got caught doing something wrong or stupid, it was your responsibility to confess, show remorse and take your lumps.  Doing the right thing, no matter the cost, was seen as a sign of maturity that fostered a sense of responsibility, community and compassion.  Disney’s Jiminy Cricket delivered the message to “let your conscience be your guide,” which implied that we already knew what was the right thing to do, we just needed to have the strength of character to do it.  No study of history in school was complete without the obligatory story of George Washington and the cherry tree, and how he never told a lie even in the face of punishment.  We all had national leaders and heroes that we admired for their adherence to the cause of truth, justice and the American way, who overcame adversity to become sterling examples for us all to follow.

But somehow as I have gotten older, those clear lines of character have been slowly eroded in a discernible and insidious way.  People who show an unwavering desire to be truthful and forthright in their conduct are seen as unsophisticated, as patsies or suckers who deserve to be taken advantage of.  Many people love the anonymity of online relationships and don’t think twice about creating all kinds of alternative realities for themselves.  And if some people find themselves in a jam that’s uncomfortable and restrains them in any way, they just make up stories to fit the circumstances in which they find themselves, all in the hope that they’ll be able to deceive other people and wriggle out of responsibility.  Personal comfort and the easy path are more important to them than integrity and character.

I grew up in an era where parents and adults held center stage.  Children were expected to look up to adults, emulate them, fit into their world, and aspire to become them someday.  Adults were addressed as “Mr.” and “Mrs.”  We dreamed about what we’d be when we grew up, that magic time when nobody else could boss us around or criticize our every move.   If we didn’t like what Mom cooked, her answer was, “This is what I made for dinner; if you don’t like it, go hungry.”  We adjusted our schedules so as not to inconvenience our parents, and would never dream of demanding something frivolous or expensive just because we wanted it.

But somewhere along the way, those attitudes began to change.  In the ‘90s when my children were small, I distinctly remember a commercial campaign on T.V. called “Children First.”  The philosophy advocated putting children at the center of the family universe, where their needs always came first.  Children were given more choices than we ever had growing up. And almost overnight, parents were expected to fit into their children’s world, adjusting their schedules and spending habits to fit the needs of their kids.

While I’m not advocating a return to the “good old days,” it’s interesting to analyze how those changing attitudes affect our families in today’s world.  The pace of the modern world has increased to the point where parents routinely rush through the drive-through at McDonald’s to feed their families just because it’s quick and easy. The concept of "quality time" has become acceptable, and many parents run themselves ragged, scheduling their children's every moment with after-school clubs, music lessons, sports and art lessons in the hope that these will produce accomplished, skilled artisans and future citizens who are problem-solvers and critical thinkers.

I have grown to appreciate more than ever before the fragile nature of our consciences.  Our own personal thoughts are truly one of the last places where privacy is impenetrable.  No one else can force you to betray your innermost thoughts and convictions, yet many people treat their own consciences like something cheap and negotiable, easily tossed away for the right price.  I’m not talking about the minor things we all do to get along with others in the world.  I’m talking about the deeply personal convictions that can sway the balance between life and death.

Study the lives of the Founding Fathers of our country, and you gain a true admiration for their ability to speak truth to power, to stand upright and proud in the face of certain death for their beliefs.  “Give me liberty or give me death.”  Simple words to say, earth-shattering to live.  The simple act of signing their names to a document one July 4th afternoon was the same as signing their own death warrants, and they all knew it.  But they did it anyway -- because they didn’t want their children to live in a world where tyranny was normal, where their dreams for a better world were trampled on by kings greedy for power and wealth, or where their choices for themselves were made by others.

Most of us don’t deal with life-or-death choices in our lives, but we still make choices every day that represent who we are as people.  It’s tax time; do I fairly and honestly prepare my return based on the reality of my finances this year, or do I “fudge” every chance I get?  Is that little white lie told to someone I don’t want to have lunch with really so terrible?  When someone seeks my advice, do I tell them merely what I think they want to hear?  Do I tell someone I think they’re great, but then bad-mouth them when their backs are turned?  All the little decisions we make regularly throughout our days don’t seem like a big deal as they’re happening, but they add up after a while.  All of those tiny erosions of character can go from being a fluke, to a common occurrence, to a pattern, to a habit, and finally to a character trait.  That slippery slope is so subtle that sometimes you don’t realize it’s happening, and then one day you wake up and realize you don’t really like that person staring back at you in the mirror.

It helps me to think of my conscience as a fragile bird, a tiny delicate creature that must be tenderly cradled in my hands, secluded away from the winds that would tear its wings to pieces if exposed to the whims and terrors of the world.  It takes constant vigilance and care to ensure that this essence of who I am is able to sing a clear and confident song.

When my time on Earth is through, and I stare into the eyes of the guy guarding the Pearly Gates who wonders if he should let me in, my conscience and personal integrity are all I’m going to be able to produce to vouch for my life.  My hope is that he will indeed let me in, and hear the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant."