Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Your Integrity; Your Identity

The cornerstone of good character is your good word. If you cannot give and keep your word, then your character is flawed and your identity confused.

If you want to build your character, you should get in the habit of keeping your word ... in matters great and small.

If you accept this challenge, your goal will be to become the kind of person about whom people say, without questioning it: If Jack says he will be here, he will be here. Or the kind of person about whom people say, without having to think about it: If Jenny says the job will be done, it will be done.

Today Russell Bishop offered some thoughts about the topic. As he and you all know, it is not a new topic. It has been around as long as the human species has been thinking of how to better itself. Link here.

In Bishop's terms, when you keep your word, your word means something. And since we are all looking to have our lives mean something, let's add that if you cannot keep your word you will be draining your life of meaning.

Bishop is trying to persuade people to make a habit of keeping their word. I have tried it myself. It is a daunting task.

We know that our everyday life is bedeviled by people who cancel appointments, fail to show up, do not do what they say they will do, and on and on and on. They make and break appointments with impunity and do not think twice about it.

In my experience the person who is stood up is usually much unhappier than the person who is standing him up. If the emotions were reversed, then people would be better motivated to keep their word.

It makes sense that it feels worse to be slapped in the face than to slap someone in the face, but actions have consequences, and if you are the slapper, the chances are good that the bad karma you have created will come back to bite you.

How did we lose the habit of keeping our word? As often happens, I am happy to place a large measure of the blame with the therapy culture.

We have been told to follow our bliss, to do what feels good, to worship at the altar of our moods and moodiness. If we don't feel like going out in the rain the fact that three people have planned to have dinner with us does not count.

The therapy culture has taught us to be self-involved boors. It has broken down our normal impulse toward considerate socialization. Fortunately, we can all undermine its pernicious influence by simply making a habit of keeping our word.

In the best of worlds, your bad habits exact a price. If you fail to honor your commitments, we can all hope that people will be less and less willing to invite you places or to value your friendship.

When you go back on your word you are telling people that you do not value their friendship. With any luck they will, after a decent interval, return the favor.

Not by standing you up-- that would be too vulgar-- but by not making plans that include you.

Now, if you are a normal person, you will be thinking thoughts like: under what circumstances can I go back on my word? Sad to say, most of us have been taught to compensate for our errors by making elaborate and heart-felt excuses.

I had every intention of getting there, the excuse maker says, but  my boss detained me to discuss the Giants game.

With a good excuse maker, that is, a person with defective character, these stories are wondrous to behold. When therapy teaches people to construct meaningful narratives, it is really teaching them how to cheat their way out of paying for their bad character.

If you keep your word you do not need to concoct stories to explain away why you didn't.

Russell Bishop is quite right when he says that you need to keep your word in matters great and small. And he is even more right when he says that you should keep your word even if you have only made the promise or vow to yourself.

This means that if you are trying to judge someone's character, you should pay attention to whether or not he keeps his words in matters that are of little consequence. If he does, he believes in the principle of good character and he cares deeply about his reputation. If not, he is only reliable and trustworthy on occasion.

And when it comes to trustworthy, "on occasion" is roughly equivalent to: not at all.

If you take up the challenge of being good to your word, the first think you will notice is that you will be far more judicious about making promises. If you know that committing yourself to an appointment means that you will have to find a way to get there on time, then you are not likely to mistake promises for declarations of intention.

"I will be there" is not the same as "I hope to be there" or "I want to be there."

You can be as casual or as frivolous as you like when expressing your heart's desire. But you need to be dead serious when you are making a commitment.

As for making commitments to ourselves, promising ourselves that we will quit smoking, attend more AA meetings, or take the shirts to the cleaners, we also need to keep those rigorously.

Not because someone will know about our perfidy, but because we will know. In knowing that we have gone back on our word, we will immediately suffer an identity crisis.

If you swear that you are never again going to go out with that scoundrel, then, when you cave in to pressure and go out with him... you will suffer an immediate problem. You will not know which is the real you: the you who swore never again to go out with him or the you who went out with him.

And if you do not know which is the real you, then you do not have an identity.

And if you do not know, then there is what I would call the default setting.  If your word does not correspond to your action, then your action is the real you. Anyone who tries to persuade you otherwise is not your friend.

Keep in mind, identity involves something being identical to something else. Having an identity means that your commitments are identical to your actions, that you make a habit of walking the talk.

Many years ago the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson wrote a book called: Identity, youth, and crisis. At the time it was a best seller. It originated the concept of adolescent identity crisis.

Clearly, if adolescents are inapt to keep their word then it is reasonable to think that they suffer the anguish of not knowing who they are.

Erikson, however, concocted his own version of identity. He proposed that a person who has an identity is conscious and self-aware that everything he has experienced belongs to the same person, him. Throughout his life he has always been the same person, whether he was at home or at school, having fun or being abused, winning the game or dancing up a storm.

At the time that Erikson proposed it, everyone liked the concept, because it seems to make sense. And yet, it has no moral dimension and makes no distinction between good and bad character.

Are we really all that sure that we know what it means to be the same person throughout? I am not willing to say that when you have been involuntarily subjected to abuse, the experience says as much about you as your good deeds and positive achievements. If we posit that the abuse was really visited on someone else, then you should try to put it behind you, not to integrate it into your life narrative as a meaningful reflection of your character.

And I wonder how Erikson would respond to Peter Kramer's concept that a person who is cured of depression by taking Prozac actually becomes another person?Listening to Prozac: The Landmark Book About Antidepressants and the Remaking of the Self, Revised Edition

In any event, if you want to build your character, to do some good for yourself and improve your relationships, you can dispense with the agonizing introspection and work on making your word mean something, by always keeping it.


knightblaster said...

Excellent piece.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Novaseeker: it is a good post.

As far as "being the same character throughout", I'm reminded of the studies that show athletes or performers who place the blame on external causes become more successful. If you internalize every failure, it seems you will become a failure.

If you neurotically place every failure on your own shortcomings, you cannot analyze the root cause of each failure and you cannot improve.

Put simply:

1) You will occasionally fail to meet your own standard.

2) It's not always your fault.

Note: this is powerful medicine; apply sparingly to avoid being just another high-self-esteem failure. See a doctor if rash develops.

and if you are the slapper, the chances are good that the bad karma you have created will come back to bite you.

My wife, trained in Buddhist karma and all in Bali, always corrects me on that. I can hear her saying:

"There is no 'bad karma' if you are a Face-Slapper by nature. In fact, if your nature is to slap a face in that instance and you do not, you have earned a karmic debt. There is no good or bad karma, there is simply a debt in the next life if you don't act in accordance with your nature."

Which really goes to the heart of your point of "knowing yourself"; Your Nature and What You Do.

Unfortunately, it is usually failures, trauma and events in extremis that gives one insight into one's identity.

I don't wish such experiences on people, so I'm not disappointed when others don't "live up to their word"; they may just not have had the dismal opportunity to know themselves.

However, for the people I know who Know Themselves? They never disappoint. They give their Word sparingly, as do I.

For everyone else, if they disappoint me, it's probably my fault for investing too much trust in them....


Anonymous said...

In re-reading your post, 'cuz it is worth re-reading:

If you want to build your character, you should get in the habit of keeping your word ... in matters great and small.

Well, that will probably expose you to the failures, traumas and events in extremis that will make you Know Yourself. Hence the "build character" part. Hahaha!

I dunno.... Give your word sparingly and have the courtesy of not asking more of others than yourself.

We always hear:

"If you say you are going to do it, you better do it."

That's weak and causes trouble. I would prefer if people taught:

"Don't say you are going to do it if you might not, or don't really want to."

At least then we can discern the feckless. Fecklessness is the default now. We gotta deal with it.