Lessons from Baby Sisters
November 19, 2011 § Leave a comment
I wrote this piece to participate in my Honors Program’s annual writing competition. I was awarded first place and asked to read the essay at Convocation. Our prompt was “Integrity.”
I remember, when I was thirteen years old, offering my five-year-old sister a bowl of soup for lunch. At this point of her childhood, the two presiding loves of her life were animals and ramen noodles. She asked what kind of broth it was, prodded me to explain what “chicken flavoring” meant, and with dawning resolution renounced the noodles — in the name of her beloved chickens. When my sister was five, we thought her vegetarian diet a piece of childish radicalism, soon to fade away. Yet she never wavered as she grew older; instead, with every passing year, as her knowledge grew, she relinquished other favorite foods without a second thought, so secure are her convictions.
After more than ten years of observing my sister, when I think of integrity, I cannot think only of the conscientious men and women who have demonstrated to me how to fearlessly jeopardize their peace in defense of what they deem valuable. When I think of integrity, I remember my sister’s resolute face and her brown eyes glistening in indignation as she refused her favorite lunch in favor of a principle. What seemed then as an example of the forfeits that integrity demands has since crystallized in my understanding as a lesson about the more forceful, but less showy, requirements of integrity.
Although impossibly young, my sister had already internalized the foundation of integrity: a principle worth making sacrifices for. She had her conviction that animals should, in life, be kept happy and free and, in death, kept off her plate. Other convictions can serve just as well as seeds of integrity — our culture tends to agree, for example, that honesty is superior to deceit, that fair-play should triumph over injustice, that all men are created equal. It is only essential that a person identify a value larger than himself and worth holding to. Cultural and personal values form the bedrocks of integrity: values that shape our motivations and expectations, that define our lives as we hold to them or set ourselves apart from them.
Now, moral conviction isn’t itself integrity. Moral points rise out of counterpoints. If she lived in a world without livestock, my sister’s claims to vegetarianism would impress themselves on no-one. It is in the conflict of principle and practice that integrity is created. Integrity demands proofs; it begins with a snag and a struggle.
I won’t talk of whether or not the world values integrity in our era of progress, of accelerating competition and the struggle to get ahead. Integrity has a chameleon face, adaptable and sometimes unrecognizable as it shifts from the service of one person to another. Our society reveals its regard for integrity by its admonition of integrity’s opposite, hypocrisy. We prefer an unrepentant and unwavering criminal to a blackguard who proclaims himself virtuous. We expect people to act as they say they will, to not conceal or contradict their motivations. People can have integrity even in adhering to what society might deem objectionable, so long as they don’t claim to be in accord with society: a cutthroat competitor sacrifices no soundness of principle if she never claims to be merciful and fair. In this way, society supports both integrity and success without putting them in opposition to one another.
I would like, instead, to talk of another force that runs counter to integrity: a force marked not by initiative, but passivity. In my experience, integrity is not undermined by drive as much as it is by ignorance. People who proclaim themselves one thing, or cry out their support for another, must be willing to actively explore the applications of their principles in the world around them. From my observations, the invisible or underground flow of human experience undermines integrity more than its flagrant showcases. The pacifists of the world can oppose war easily enough, but the struggle becomes more complicated when it requires a conscientious examination of the less obvious instances of violence in the world.
None of this is to say that human beings are required to scrutinize every possible circumstance of living in order to soundly uphold their principles. However, people must be wary of the tunnel-vision and narrow-mindedness that shepherd ignorance and lead to unintentional hypocrisies. When I was young and at home, surrounded by people who shared my own values and exposed to certain channels of information, I did not often consider what my values meant in the world. Being exposed to far more diverse avenues and aspects of learning has changed this. I have, to this point in my life, been fortunate enough to have avoided crises of conscience involving vicious oppositions and dramatic decisions. But learning about the details of human experience, here at school and in the thoroughfares of life, has brought many of my convictions into question, bringing to bear the applications of my values and requiring me to consider what it really takes to remain consistent.
Knowing this, I admire my sister’s integrity all the more because she never flinches from exploring the truth. When she comes across circumstances that expose an unintentional discord between her principles and practices, she does not bring out blinders, but rather welcomes the enlightenment. And for this, I can thank her for, as a five year old, teaching me the most striking lesson about integrity that I’ve received thus far in life: that integrity and truth-seeking, not integrity and forfeit, go hand in hand.