Integrity in a Partitioned World

My favorite definition of ‘integrity’ derives from its Latin root, integer, suggesting a wholeness and completion. Incidentally, another favorite word, shalom, often gets translated as ‘peace’ when its root in Hebrew can also be understood as completion and wholeness. I love these root words, because they suggest that healing our shattered world cannot be so partitioned, that we must both be and search for what is whole and holistically beneficial. Peace, integrity and wholeness are all intertwined.

I am often in search of shalom, of wholeness, in my life. Not that I feel like an incomplete person at all, but that I don’t know how to knit that completion into a cohesive professional identity. It’s a shape with too many sides, a question with too many answers. With these definitions in mind, I’ve come to believe that my best work is done when my whole self can be invested, in all of its multifaceted identity.

I’ve blogged only intermittently in the last couple years. The truth is, I don’t always know how to reconcile my identities to a world that likes boxes and binaries. We are all multidimensional, but the internet is flat, often showing only one side of a person or an idea. Our workplaces can also be misaligned, as I well know. As I work to discover and create my professional and creative identity, I struggle to choose among the myriad aspects of myself that I value. Yes, I am a scientist, but also a creative, a person of faith, an environmentalist, an outdoorswoman of various flavors, a cooking enthusiast, eager gardener and developing locavore. I’m newly a wife, perhaps eventually a mom. These are so many worlds to inhabit and I love each of them. To market myself in only one of those dimensions is incomplete, and often I feel as if my own identity gets siloed by the ideological camps that already exist around those realities. When I think about who I want to be, it encompasses a passion that is too interconnected to fit into any of the vacancies I see. I don’t know how to respond when asked what I want, although the vision feels somewhat clear.

In a world where opinions are always at the ready, I’ve also wanted to be thoughtful, to understand my own mind before writing it into publicity. So judgmental and dismissive is our culture, that ‘wrongness’ is grounds for excommunication. Never mind teachable moments, humility, or learning from our mistakes. Never mind a world where we can grow and become better people by recognizing and correcting our missteps. That is the world I will always advocate for: for human interactions among people who are equal in their imperfection. A world where better is possible because we are able to both speak and listen; where we are not locked into myopic and two-dimensional versions of our worst moments. Not one of us is a worthy judge, not one of us has never failed. Pretending otherwise actually creates a worse world, one where we do not have the space to creatively investigate solutions to our problems, because creativity is destroyed by shame. In the words of Helen Lewis for The Atlantic, “A lack of due process does not become a moral good just because you sometimes agree with its targets.”1 

Listening is not always agreeing. It is not submitting to someone else’s version of the world or failing to hold someone accountable for harmful actions. Listening to another’s story does not require you to surrender your own.2 But we can never get to productive change until we all meet at a human level and address what’s there, which requires humility, strength, and a willingness to see both the imperfect humanity of another person and yourself. 

But all that to say, the sparring of the internet has made the idea of posting feel a bit less appealing. I want to share ideas, not feel as though I’m submitting my thoughts for scrutiny by an unforgiving panel of invisible faces. But I’d like to grow past that fear. The truth is, I will be wrong. And I will learn from it, with intent and thoughtful engagement with people who bring such things to my attention. I will dedicate my life to continued learning and understanding, the pursuit of wisdom. But I will endeavor not let the fear of wrongness keep me from the ever-important act of exploration, self-discovery, seeking truth and justice, and – hopefully – writing about it.

The world is admittedly heavy to me these days. I find myself perplexed and confused about how to address the myriad injustices cropping up across the landscape. My research brings me in front of data that guts me on a regular basis. About poverty, about inequity, about the unjust distribution and protection of assets as basic as health. This in a wealthy land that proudly proclaims its own virtue. I see in my own life how people so easily fall through the cracks of incomplete community and an overburdened system. Ruminating on these things sometimes wakes me before dawn.

It is probably not popular in America to suggest that maybe we actually belong to each other, have responsibility to support, uphold, protect and help one another. We only want to do that for the people we deem worthy, and we are unable to imagine a world where enacting justice might actually cost us our own convenience and comfort. Perhaps shalom extends to how the community organism lives and breathes, in that it too must be whole. Interconnected. Complete. Indeed, in the same Hebrew language, the word for ‘righteousness’ is understood as ‘being in right relationship with others,’ and is often paired with the word for justice. This is quite different from the association it’s adopted with personal morality.3

I am constantly wrestling to dismantle the American doctrine of self-worship in my own heart, that imagines that I have a right to every good thing my power can afford, that I have the ability to decide for myself who is worthy and who is not. I don’t. I can’t accept that bargain when power is distributed so unequally, when living into that American nightmare only perpetuates those very inequalities. Justice is an equation few of us truly want to solve, because the math of a just society costs us. We are ever-tempted to sniff out loopholes to our communal bondedness. I admit, I am often stuck in the tallying myself. Most people I know are.

What I appreciate about the Bible is that it seems to dismantle our framework of who we get to deem worthy of our effort and responsibility. The Good Samaritan is a story of a person from a hated outcast subculture heroically and generously coming to the aid of a traveler who had been mugged, after two others from the dominant culture (religious elites) had hurried past, too righteous to be bothered. The story had been told in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” As if to say, “Okay, but who do I really have to care for anyway?” To the listening audience (who were themselves among the powerful echelon of society), the implication that the outcast, the untouchable, was the actual hero of the story, the model of righteous neighborliness, was scandalous.4 Jesus (the storyteller in this instance) had a knack for winnowing out the tightly clutched pride in others and flipping it on its head. I am thirsty for such reckoning today, even in my own life. I find myself often asking where such gracious scandals would exist now, and to be sure there are plenty. What I do know is that Jesus seemed to have the harshest words not for the people society had already outcast as ‘sinners,’ but for the self-righteous who judged them. And while it’s easy to cheer for this idea when we identify with the outcasts, there are many places in each of our lives where we too sit as the judge of others, and I think the same scrutiny would apply to us there. 

I suppose this all seems inopportunely weighty. But in response to those asking after my writing, this is what is on my mind. I cannot research the weight of the world in my work and ignore it in my life. And I wouldn’t want to. 

It’s worth saying, though, that my own life these days is actually deeply happy. My husband and I are loving our first year of marriage, and experimenting with living into our values about resources, sustainability, and community involvement. I find joy in gardening and composting, baking bread and making staples like yogurt and salsa. Reconnecting to ‘play’ in my life in the form of ballet has been livening. Being vaccinated, we have begun to live a more communal life once again, which has been deeply lovely. I have the blessing of being able to bury myself in important reading, and am asking myself weighty questions for which I lack many answers. I have nothing perfectly figured out, but I do strive to learn. And that’s where I want to be.

May you be blessed as you go on your way. Engage faithfully, love earnestly, and be intellectually honest. Or, as someone once wrote, “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly.”5 

~

References

  1. Lewis, H. (2020). How capitalism drives cancel culture. The Atlantic.
  2. Stone, Douglas, Sheila Heen, and Bruce Patton. Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. Penguin, 2010.
  3. Keller, Timothy. Generous justice: How God’s grace makes us just. Penguin Books, 2012.
  4. Luke 10:25-37, the Bible
  5. Micah 6:8, the Bible

Banner Photo: Sidewalk flowers in Tucson, AZ. Taken by Christy Clutter (me)

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