I’ve wondered often what integrity is. Most people know it when they see it, but defining it is difficult. It’s tempting jump to a sort of trivial integrity; the one you hear about in the news. Politicians who don’t cheat on their wives and only lie occasionally are said to have integrity. But there is a different sort of integrity that some people carry with them every day. It shows itself as a bearing, a sureness of character that inspires trust and admiration. The coworker who has lines they won’t cross, lines not drawn by any policy or regulation. It’s the integrity of people who remain focused and achieve their childhood goals while the rest of us settle; settle on jobs which aren’t fulfilling, and marriages without joy. Integrity shows itself as both a dedication to a certain kind of virtue, but also to a dedication to the self.
When I was younger, I thought integrity was easy. As simple as being a good person, as simple as “do no harm”. As a teen and young adult, the word itself ‘integrity’ never really resounded. It was synonymous with goodness. Just be a decent human, don’t hurt others, contribute what you can to the needs of others; be polite. To be sure these things are all wonderful. Grade school politeness will get you far, many people left it behind or never learned at all. Life, however, brings some new challenges.
I graduated college at 25 with a BA in English, the month before my last semester of college, my wife (girlfriend at the time) and I welcomed a baby boy into the world. I was working as a server/bartender at a local restaurant and making decent money for the job. My wife, being small and anemic, had a high risk pregnancy and was forced to leave her job as a CNA early in the pregnancy. Unsurprisingly, money was tight. There came a juncture for us however. I could find a job that would undoubtedly be a pay cut, but with growth potential, or I could remain at a job which I loathed, but which would provide for us, but would either dead end, or lead me down a career path to which I never aspired and would never be happy in.
Were I alone, the answer would be simple. Take the leap. I can’t count how many people I have heard preach about taking the leap. It goes something like: be a risk taker or you’ll never land that dream job. If you don’t have the balls to put yourself out there, how will you ever make something of yourself in this economy? Fight for your dreams!
It’s easy to decide to be poor, it’s quite a bit harder to decide to take your newborn son and wife down the same road for the sake of your career. We were on food stamps, we were fighting tooth and nail. I was counting cents and filling every category in my budget. Could I subject my new family to more hardship? Could we endure the strain?
I went with the job I hated.
It’s been a few years now.
It wasn’t true to myself, it wasn’t brave. It completely sucked. Right now I’m still transitioning away from that place.
I’d make the same call in a heartbeat today.
For all the pop wisdom about being true to yourself, about taking the plunge and risking it all, the opposite can often be true.
My new budding family taught me the first part of integrity. It’s the knowledge of just what I am willing to risk, and what I am not. I knew that there would be more opportunities for me. There would be a time when my wife could go back to work and help bear the risk and reward. There would day-jobs in the future. I would not give my child’s infancy to a daycare for which I could not guarantee payment. There would be time for me, and it wasn’t at the beginning of my family. Idealistic and impulsive me, who dreamed of sailing and writing and running and Kerouacing — learned patience. Learning to live to fight another day is a tough lesson.