"Integrity" is an amorphous word with incredible weight when it is used. Sometimes I can feel it’s impact more than I can define what it means. And I think it means something slightly different to every individual. For my friend Emily Foo, I will always remember her giving integrity the meaningful responsibility of ensuring she is "being the same person all of the time" (in far more elegant words). It means not changing yourself to cope, to avoid thinking in a way you do not think, to be somebody you’d rather be but is ultimately not you.
I was thinking about what integrity means to me and perhaps I’ve yet to hunt down those succinct words. Towards the end of December, I had the spontaneous thought that my resolution for 2014 should be to simply stop calling myself crazy. I often use crazy as a means for apologizing for my behavior, as a means to make light of what I really take seriously but find socially unacceptable, of finding an easy excuse for actions that holds incredible emotional weight. In all honesty, I don’t think I actually like this. I don’t think I’m actually crazy, at least not in the way that I mean it.
"I’m sorry I’m depressed. I know there’s no reason to be depressed. I feel crazy."
Depression takes a stronger hold on you when you invalidate the reasons for feeling awful. To apologize for how you feel, in other words, is self-abandonment. It is not necessarily being someone else, but condemning who you are as something to be sorry for. It is a loss of integrity. Maybe learning what integrity isn’t is a way to learn what it is.
I am unpredictable, erratic, emotional, 认真，sometimes vindictive, sometimes creative, irrational, honest, loyal and forgiving—but I am not crazy. I am not a force for society to tolerate out of its compassion. That isn’t a society I wish to build or to live in.
It’s something I have to convince myself of, but it’s something that I think I know—at my core—to be true.
These words are not mean to shame those who find empowerment in craziness or insanity, but rather to remove the apology from the sentence. From “I’m sorry I’m crazy” to “I’m crazy.” Or in the words of Ralph Ellison, “I yam what I am.” (Invisible Man)
I was really depressed last week. And I just happened to have opened up Virginia Woolf’s essay,”A Room of One’s Own,” while wandering around the campus of Santa Clara University. She writes:
What one means by integrity, in the case of the novelist, is the conviction that he gives one that this is the truth. Yes, one feels, I should never have thought that this could be so; I have never known people behaving like that. But you have convinced me that so it is, so it happens.
Just a few moments ago, someone asked me what I felt of Woolf’s essay on women and fiction, and I very honestly—though somewhat crudely—reflected upon the moment of that reading and replied, “It was as though she tore my heart out, made it better, and sewed it back in.”
But really, if I could amend that statement, it was such that she tore my heart out, made me see the intricacies of my own veins and arteries and how the blood flows and how they sound and work to pump and what is already true to how I have grown, reminded me what has always been true, and sewed my heart back in.
Sometimes people ask me why I majored in English Literature and I answer that it just happened. In more personal situations, I answer that literature saved me on so many occasions. In hindsight, literature gave me the tools to save myself.
For what is integrity, if not the sutures that hold a person together. The self-confidence to speak your truth as a truth worth hearing. Not to impose, but rather to celebrate that this world has truths—and many of them. To look at what is true for you and not to shame it as “inconvenient” or “worthy of apology” or “inconsiderate” or “unreasonable.” Crazy.
For what is compelling writing, but writing from the core; as truthful as words can represent. The courage to make a declaration and then to stand by it.
It’s interesting how integrity is something you can have. Sometimes I imagine holding it, feeling the weight of it, gaining it and giving it away. What does it look like? What does it feel like to forget what it is. What does it feel like to be without it.
Sometimes it isn’t clear what must be done to have integrity. It isn’t always clear to me who I am, who I am meant to be. Just what is the truth here?
Probably like most people, I’ve been hurt in relationships before. I’ve been made to feel expendable, used and undervalued. In most cases though, I can understand why this happened and I see how my own actions helped facilitate it. I don’t feel prolonged anger or hate, but you can’t deny the hurt. It stays.
Even so, it’s somehow become a small point of pride for me to say I can forgive, and overlook and choose to continue to be friends despite rational reasons to not be. I’ve made some of my most interesting friends in this manner and for a while, I thought this was just who I am. I’m capable of letting people stay in my life, even if it hurts. They are, despite it all, good people. Everything that happened was just circumstance and bad luck. Am I not living with compassion? Empathy? Humility?
Recently, I received a call from someone who had once intentionally or unintentionally hurt me so much. Too much. Ridiculous amounts. And what she said was effectively an apology for the past. For finally understanding now, why things could have hurt so much. What surprised me was that I didn’t feel validated, or relieved or even really happy. I thought I would—should—be one or all of those emotions. Shouldn’t I feel like my decision then to continue making this person important in my life, shouldn’t I feel like I made the right decision? It, ostensibly, “paid off”?
And so it is that I question what integrity really is. Because, after that call, when my non-reaction forced me to be honest with myself, I had to admit that I just couldn’t feel anything because the damage is done. It’s done and it can’t be undone. No amount of understanding seems to make a difference. As much as I wanted so hard to believe otherwise, I don’t think I ever actually forgave it. I tried to look away, but the damage has always been there. This doesn’t mean anger or hate or even dislike, it just means some things cannot be edited. What does it mean to live your unedited self? What does it mean to be a better person? To have more integrity?
At the core, it is not about an inability to forgive, but rather, respecting the mass of events and emotions that transpired. If someone made you feel like shit for an entire year, is it really compassionate to anyone if you take a life white-out and blot away everything that was awful. Not pretending it didn’t happen, but forcing yourself to trivialize the weight of those emotions because that is more convenient for the present day. And so I realize that maybe I have kept these friendships not because I am compassionate, but because I am afraid of a life without. Or afraid of being more truthful. I am afraid of what I am not used to. I’d rather have conversations edited of history and reality than to let go.
I’m afraid of saying “so it is, so it happens.”
So I ask again, what is integrity. And how do you have it if having it means excising beautiful, wrong things. How do you have it if having it means saying, “no” without looking back. How do you have it if having it means rejecting what you feel is unworthy of you. How do you have it if having it means dismissing that which insults my soul.
How much does that weigh? How heavy is it to live with integrity?