A few days ago, I was in the car listening to an interview with Tavis Smiley, an African-American social critic and all-around intellectual bad-ass. In recent years, he’s come under fire from the African-American community for holding Barack Obama publicly accountable for his failure to better address issues of poverty in America.
While knew that Smiley had become persona non grata in his own cultural community for voicing criticism of the first black President of the United States, it was only in the wake of the interview that I considered just how much intellectual integrity such a critique requires. This is a man less interested in cultural or political ideology than he is in truth. Now that is integrity. And integrity is rare.
They say that the quality you hate most in other people is the quality you hate in yourself. Conversely, I would say that the thing you admire most in others is that which you most long to have. For me, that most admired quality is integrity. Having integrity is hard. Integrity is, among other things, being willing to do the hard thing for no other reason than that it is right.
For most of my life, I had no integrity, (and no, I’m not being hard on myself). I never did the hard thing because hard things were hard – or stressful, or saddening, or difficult, or uncomfortable or, or, or…. I trafficked in excuses, both with others and myself. I was sick. I was swamped. I was stressed. I was something. Anything. Just give me an excuse, and if that excuse inspired sympathy, bonus points.
Excuses were easier than integrity. Much easier. Unfortunately, making excuses also meant that I was perpetuating a lie and creating my own mythology – a comfortable little narrative that kept me insulated from the reality of myself. And then my mythology fell apart.
Someone I know once said that if you and your self-image aren’t matching up, one of you has to change. In my case, I was nowhere near being the strong, confident, compassionate person I thought I was – a fact that became disturbingly clear after a series of painful realizations.
Once faced with an unavoidably clear picture of myself, I realized that I had three options.
1. I could accept my new, truthful self-image, disgusting warts and all.
2. I could try to delude myself back into my happy comfort zone, (no dice there, I’d already swallowed the red pill).
3. I had to change.
Now, let’s be clear. Living with the fact that I was a moody, self-absorbed stress puppy held zero appeal. I had to change, mostly because I was, (and am), too vain to settle for being less than someone I can respect.
Integrity is, for me, a hard-won import of a quality. Someone else I know is fond of saying that the danger with integrity is that you never know when you’ve lost it, and I believe this to be true. I fear the easy answer like almost nothing else. I fear my own ego and the trap of self-admiration. I fear ideologies because there is safety in belonging, even if you trade yourself in exchange. I fear spoon-fed logic because, for so long, I failed to think for myself.
Consequently, there is literally nothing more attractive to me than a person with integrity. They are what I strive to be – their own honest judge of themselves and their circumstances. That’s why I so respect Tavis Smiley, whose politics I both do and do not agree with. He is a person with towering integrity – both intellectual and personal – and that is that is the quality I most need to nurture in myself.