As a teenager sitting at the dinner table while my parents discussed the day, I heard the word again: Integrity. That little word held deep meaning for my father, the regional manager for an HVAC company, who found himself caught in continual battles with the manufacturer of their products. For years the manufacturer had refused to acknowledge defects in some of the machinery sold and distributed by my dad’s office.
As I listened to him describe the day’s battle, I remembered visiting his office months earlier as a call from an irate customer came through. I’d been sitting across from him at his desk, when our conversation was interrupted by a knock at the door. “Joe,” one of his salesmen said, “I’ve got Ron Walls on the phone. I think you’d better talk to him.”
“Sure, transfer him through.” His look told me to sit and wait quietly. The call came through and he picked up the phone, “Joe Smith, speaking.”
As he sat upright, listening, I saw his shoulders stiffen. He murmured the occasional, “Yes” and, “I understand” as the customer berated his product. “Certainly, Ron. We will send a serviceman out to you as soon as possible. Where are you located?”
“In Laurenberg? You wouldn’t happen to know Randy Walls, would you?” Dad asked in his good-old-boy southern drawl.
“No kidding! Randy and I went to school together. Oh, of course!” he realized, “You’re his little brother Ron!”
My dad leaned back in the chair as the conversation turned friendly. When he replaced the receiver, he sighed with relief. Not only had Ron stopped firing at him, he’d laid his weapons aside. By the end of the conversation, you’d have thought they were old military buddies, laughing over beers and reminiscing together.
He looked up at me and said, “I know his brother and I made him laugh. Now he knows I’m on his side.”
That night at the dinner table, I could see a similar tension in my dad’s shoulders as he relayed the new dramas of the day.
As a teenager, I couldn’t appreciate his stress as I can now after years in the workforce. Sometimes I find myself like him–beleaguered by the battles I’ve fought while trying to work with integrity.
Integrity: Speaking truthfully, acting honestly. Practicing congruence between what we say we believe and who we are and what we do.
I think I was spoiled by my father’s value on integrity because I soon found myself caught off guard when people lacked it. I guessed this was to be expected from the “knot heads” and “jack legs” (as he called them), but even among the apparently “good guys” I’ve worked with–the ones who wanted to do good and be courageous, but weren’t.
And as I’ve grown, and gained more experience, I’ve realized that finding and being a person of integrity is far more difficult than I’d first supposed. Congruence demands a courage that is rare: the courage to be intellectually and emotionally authentic.
We must be honest enough to face our situation as it is, not avoiding it or pretending that it is different. We must be courageous enough to admit our shortcomings and our own collusions and self-serving conspiracies with the unjust systems we claim to battle. And finally, congruence demands a creativity of spirit. There are few road maps for the journey because those who have walked these paths are often few and far between. My father has described parts of his journey to me, in evenings at the dinner table and in extended telephone conversations, in which he coached me to navigate through my own rough waters.
Yet I suspect that my own attempts to work with integrity will lead me down new paths that he didn’t explore. And I certainly hope that as I journey, he seems glimpses of himself and the influence that he’s had.
This reflection was written in honor of my dad for his 70th birthday.