Sunday, March 18, 2007

Integrity and Roles

I wrote in a recent entry about "growing up." For some reason, that has been a metaphor I have found helpful lately. When I was a child, people thought I was terribly "grown up" for one so young. Ironically, now that I am supposed to be an adult, I realize how little I understand about what being "grown up" really means!

What is newly crystallizing for me now is learning how to live into a role.

Richard M. has been writing about integrity. My discussion connects with his.

I used to think that integrity meant being fully my one true self in every situation: being human first of all, and being "professor" or "chair" or other roles only secondarily.

And while I still agree in a way, something is shifting in my understanding of how to live true to my roles with integrity. Our identity, after all, is complex. The roles we take on do change us.

My first breakthrough was to realize that the way people react to me is often not about me at all but about my role. For example, I learned fairly quickly that the sullen students who sit in the back of the classroom with arms folded and hats pulled down hiding their eyes are not responding to me-as-me, but are acting out their habituated response to "teacher." A lifetime of experience has shaped their response. The fact that they behave this way on the very first day of class is proof that it has nothing to do with me at all. It reflects something of their current way of being in the world, in relationship to anyone who happens to occupy this role.

This was quite a powerful and liberating thing for me to realize, as it eased my own self-consciousness, and I realized that I could creatively intervene, for example, by deliberately disrupting their preconceptions about "teacher." This is not about me-as-me. Therefore, surprising ways I could let out non-teacher aspects of myself, helping them to see that I am an individual and not just another version of that same Teacher they have had over and over again, could catch them by surprise and could change their own habituated responses, bringing us into more authentic relationship.

If I had not realized this when I did, I probably would not have lasted as a teacher.

My second breakthrough is to realize that not only is it sometimes impossible for me to bring my fuller human self into a role, it can actually be inappropriate to do so. Often integrity's call is to be your best teacher-self and to hold back from trying to be any more or anything else than this.

To give a specific example: my full human self tends to want people to like me. But sometimes in my role as teacher, I have to let people not like me. I have to let our relationship be stressed when my students encounter the inherent discomfort of aspects of learning. I have to trust them to come to terms with this, and I have to realize that the best thing I can do is hold strong in the meantime. Sometimes they come to understand and are grateful in the long run. But other times they never do -- at least not that I ever see. But even so, I must hold strong.

It is especially in my role as chair of my department that I most frequently find myself called upon to have to make and uphold decisions that are not only hard on me, but that I realize I absolutely cannot explain to those I may most want to console. An earlier version of myself would have been torn apart by this sort of thing. I would have wanted to quit. I would have interpreted it as a violation of my own integrity.

But I'm in a new place. I see clearly the greater good that is being accomplished, and while I am sorry for the disappointment that others may feel, I also do trust that way will open for them -- that their disappointment now is part of their journey that is theirs to process and deal with. I too have been disappointed similarly in the past, but found new ways forward. In this, I find that where I am now is strangely redemptive for me. Now that I see what it is like on "the other side," I can forgive those who disappointed me in the past. I see now that from their perspectives, making the decisions that adversely affected me was probably hard, but they saw things that I didn't see, that I couldn't see back then. This does not mean that all such decisions are right. The truth is, we are never really sure. But we do the best we can; and, anyway, disappointment is inevitable for everyone.

I also am learning that there are times when, because of my role, I have to be the one to absorb the outrage or misunderstandings. There are times where it all stops with me. There is nothing more that I can say or do, and so it is up to me to be the target of anger. Sometimes I have to take this on to protect others.

I used to worry that "developing a thick skin" meant becoming less sensitive. To lose my sensitivity felt like another betrayal of my integrity.

Now I see that "developing a thick skin" does not have to mean that at all. Now I take "developing a thick skin" to mean "accepting my role." The "thick skin" is the role. The way I can stand strong in the face of anger or disappointment is to realize that the anger or disappointment are not, in fact, directed to me the person, but instead are directed to the role I uphold. And so that role becomes a lightning rod, letting the negative energy discharge into the ground without damaging me.

Sometimes I even realize that their disappointment and anger are justified. "Yes," I tell myself. "Teacher" or "Chair has had to take this stand in this situation, and it is unfortunate." As the lightning rod that is my role channels the energy into the ground, I send it forth with a prayer, because that ground is God, and in God there is redemptive power. I do not know when or where the healing of that redemptive power will come; I do not know if I will have the privilege of witnessing that moment, but I know that it is there.

In these ways, I am finding my way to the deeper trust I have been seeking.

I enter this new world with some trepidation. The world of roles is a world of power. Roles operate the way they do because of their connection to the socially-constructed institutions that structure and govern our communally shared lives. In our roles, our selves do become constricted and narrowed; ironically, it is the constriction that gives these roles power. The constriction is the focus that hones efficacy to precision and power.

If we wear our roles like shells detached from the core of our true selves, we become vulnerable to fragmenting ourselves -- the opposite of integrity, and the root of unethical behavior: the root of acting out our roles irresponsibly. And so all that I have described must be taken carefully and with utmost humility. We must make our decisions as carefully as we can. We must constantly question and refine the ideals we try to uphold in our roles. We must make sure that the decisions we make do not in fact violate the ethics of our whole and complete selves, or do damage to our compassion. We must have the humility to realize that, even in doing the best that we can, we might be getting it wrong: and yet, we must stand strong in our decisions anyway, unless we genuinely become convinced that we were wrong. Then we must apologize and change course.

All of this is important for ourselves as well as for the sake of those whom our decisions impact. Like I said before, our roles do change us over time. The more we do to keep our complex identities integrated, the more likely it is that the effect of our roles on the deepest core of our being is positive instead of negative. If we start to sense that the ideals we are supposed to uphold in our roles are not consistent with the ideals that matter to our truest, deepest selves, then it is imperative to question whether we are right to stay in those roles.

But if the ideals of a given role harmonize with the ideals that matter most to our core selves, then the journey of living into that role becomes an important part of our general spiritual journey.


  1. Cs,

    It's taken me about a day to ponder some of the issues that you raise here. I'll start with an easy one. I can relate to your difficulty in giving students negative feedback. Everyone wants praise and they are so disappointed, hurt or even angry when I tell them their argument is bad. I would much rather give good news but giving bad news when it is the truth is part of the job. Giving praise when criticism is due isn't right. Integrity demands toughness some of the time.

    The issue of integrity and the roles we play is more complex. On the one hand there are those who think that to act differently in different situations because you have play different roles is dishonest. These extreme romantics think that authenticity demands the person not take on roles but instead just "be who they are" in all situations. I don't agree with this extreme romanticism. Most of us have multiple roles and the appropriate way to behave changes depending on which role we are in. I'm a professor, a Dad, and a coach to mention just three roles. To act like a professor when I'm talking to my son would be inappropriate and to talk like a Dad when I am talking to a student would be inappropriate. I don't think I should just always be "me." But the romantics are reacting to a real challenge that roles pose for integrity. Some people will use the excuse that their role requires them to say things that are not true. For example, people often take the stand that as a spokesman for this group I must present the group in a good light, so I cannot tell the whole truth. I have to hide the dirty laundry. If you go that route you are using roles to avoid the truth and there is an integrity issue. So all in all I do think we have to respect the differences that roles make in our lives but we need to keep the roles in balance and not allow the role to become an excuse for dishonesty.

  2. Thank you, Richard M, for sharing your thoughts. Yes, I agree completely that sometimes the demands of certain roles can tempt us away from important principles of integrity such as truth and honesty. I agree that we must find the right balance, so that we do not let roles become an excuse for lapses of integrity.

    This can be very hard.

    What I have been finding helpful is to keep testing my own motivation. When I feel caught in a dilemma, I ask the deeper questions all over again about (a) why I assumed this role in the first place, (b) what is it really that is guiding my own decision-making with respect to the situation at hand, and (c) who is this situation ultimately serving, and which decision is in their best interest?

    Coming back to my own motivations grounds me in an important way. If I trust that I am doing the best that I can, and that my motivations are appropriately aligned with the demands of the situation, I then feel that my own integrity has not been compromised.

    And if a role pushes me in ways that threaten my sense of integrity, then I seriously question whether it is right for me to stay in that role.

  3. CS,

    You are currently on a path which has lead you to take on additional responsibility. You blogged about this as feeling like becoming an adult. Of course you were an adult long before this but the additional responsibility which you have taken on feels like that in some ways. Of course there are dangers taking on such a role. You might misuse the power. You might be tempted to compromise your principles. You might start to develop a sense of self-importance. You would avoid some of these dangers by keeping a lower profile and refusing to take on additional responsibility. But ultimately that wouldn't be right. I think you are genuinely being lead in this new direction. I don't think it is ego driven. Of course there are dangers in the path but what that means is that you need to face them clearly. And you are doing that. By asking yourself those basic questions about your motivation you are keeping yourself from getting off track. You gotta have faith. And what's faith? Well, faith isn't believing that Noah stuffed giraffes and kangaroos into the ark. Faith is what Abraham had when he listened to God and followed his leading no matter how implausible it sounded to common sense. So have the faith of Abraham and follow your leading to the best of your ability.

  4. Wow! I am so glad that I "googled" this today! As I have been contemplating my current position as a High School Teacher , I had called a meeting with my Principal and Instructional Coach to discuss my role on campus. In that meeting I thankfully received some positive feedback, but also some criticism. One point they both made to me was that I needed to work on having a "thicker skin" and not take things so personally. I have never known how to do this, and decided to take some time this weekend to possibly gather other's perspectives on the issue. What a help your BLOG has been to me! You have helped me to see the path more clearly (which I always knew was there). This has helped me to clear the way in my mind which I was lost to finding before.
    Your words have helped me in working towards becoming a better educator, and knowing the difference between my "role" and my self.
    Thank you!
    ~K. Klein
    Spanish Teacher
    Houston, TX

  5. To K. Klein,

    Thank you so much for writing! I am glad that you found my interpretation of "having a thick skin" helpful! I was hoping that others would find it as helpful as I have found it!

    Best wishes,
    Contemplative Scholar