Integrity hums in the frame of a boy oblivious to the intellectual discourse defining the purity of intent, of purpose, of standards in action. He’s out there on the soccer field and he’s giving all he has, of his own motivation, to give to the game. It may appear to exceed others’ contributions. It may appear to lag behind still others. But it’s of no consequence except as it honors who he is, what matters to him. It’s only an issue when it becomes a violation of his innermost intent.
My son, Isaac, is a finesse player. He claims some of his best moves are accidental. I’m not sure I trust his assessment of himself but, at the same time, I believe him. I think he surprises himself. But, you don’t look at him and think “jock” or “athlete.” His is a lithe, poetic young male strength. He runs like a gymnast. And that’s his love though it isn’t affordable for us. So, he chases a soccer ball. Is that a dilution of integrity? It’s not. He knows why he can’t be a gymnast. But he also knows he wants team and friends. So, he chooses what will work. He stays true, pure to what is most important to him given the constraints of life’s offerings.
This season his coach is saying that integrity is all that matters. They’ve lost a few games to teams a bit more cohesive and aggressive. Watching his team is like watching great potential out of sync, not quite sure. It’s too large a team. They get going on the flow of their feel on the field, then the whistle blows – time to stop and introduce two players into the game. The cohesion is shot. Their first game is the only one they won. There were no subs available.
Integrity? Keep in mind, integrity has layers upon layers. Integer – Latin. Check it out.
I’m not, by any stretch, criticizing the coach. He didn’t ask for that much to manage and it’s not exactly easy to turn people away. But it strikes me how multi-layered the soul of integrity. His intent, as a coach, is to encourage the players to stay within the bounds of good sportsmanship, to not push, to not slide tackle, to not kick at the goalie as he’s down on the ground with the ball, to stay within the position. We got to watch our team’s goalie nearly take one in the face as several players on the opposing team worked with their own brand of integrity offside. The ref woke up to the fray at play beyond the game’s prescribed acceptable bounds and called the foul.
Integrity. I listened in the unusually cool breeze as the coach encouraged them. “Integrity, remember, integrity is all that matters.” We could intelligently argue that the rule-breakers have an integrity that thrives outside the accepted cultural standards. They’ve their own standards and they don’t bend them for any other. They are whole, pure in their intent.
Words are these neat little shelters. We hide in them. We grow a sense of rightness depending on their perceived spirit and depending on the one weaving his own ideals into language’s offerings, a language that ultimately fails to convey how deep the wells of meaning. How can you convey integrity in words?
I passed drinks and snacks along to some weary souls, chatting and laughing with fellow soccer parents, plotting get-togethers beyond the fields. Listening as that one word reverberated.
Isaac hurried along with me to the car in the dark, fussing at the bugs swarming under bright lights, the clouds cloaking our moon. We were in a hurry to get to the second half of his sister’s game. In the quiet of the car, we discussed the game. I asked him, as we pulled up to the soccer fields 5 minutes away, “Do you know what integrity means? Does your coach tell you what he thinks it means?” I smiled at my own internal cringe to hear the words spill from my lips. I was raised in an environment that made clear what was right and what was wrong while accepting the reality of frailty, of weakness. Being right with God, that was more important than even living. It has taken me a couple decades to learn I was never wrong in God’s eyes, that the only original sin is the idea we are separate from love. A hard won skirmish on some fields unkind in their ideal integrity.
I don’t preach to my kids. I try to live and speak into the moment in ways that do not label what is intrinsic to a humanity knowing and growing love. I mention “virtues” as an aside, an “oh by the way…this can be called generosity or compassion.” I’ve discovered that as soon as I preach, the value of the truth is diminished. But I do tell them that whatever they value for themselves is just as valuable to others, even if others don’t know it. I tell them if they can’t get it right with each other, everything else is a sham. That means giving each other room to be grouchy and unavailable, not just sweet and agreeable. Their relationship with each other, as siblings is team is community is world. Their relationship with self is the foundation. It’s from this basis I operate as a facilitator in their lives. We discuss God and religion, Taoism, Buddhism. My daughter explored Hinduism for a season. We discuss society and roles. We jive about politics and media nonsense as life unfolds. I’m fully aware how much I influence them without even seeking to do so. Isaac said yesterday, after coming home with a swine flu alert: “They want to vaccinate us against being alive.” I suspect he’s heard that somewhere. But I’m glad. It speaks of the purity of a whole organism unhindered by injections of fear.
It has struck me that we produce a desire to “do good” so as to be accepted when we teach values with carefully constructed labeling. Not that it’s a bad thing. But it’s true that we can lose the spirit of what motivated the first attempt to create a word to convey a force ultimately unable to be defined.
So, it’s a tightrope walk for me. I want my kids to grow organically into an expression of what is basic human goodness in love. I’ll sometimes say “This is what some people call humility, Isaac.” He was, at the time, being modest. He had no idea.
I love that. He had no idea. He just unfolds meaning more apt than any word can suggest.
So, what does coach say is integrity? “It’s doing good even when no one is watching.” Isaac informed me. I affirmed that but took it deeper, reminding him that criminals have a form of integrity. He can handle it. We parked along an empty parking space and he piped up, “How’d that get there?” It was a water bottle, empty and left on the asphalt. He loves beauty. I responded, distracted with feeling inadequate as a teacher: “I’m sure someone dropped it.” He mutters as he opens the car door: “I bet that’s why no one parked there.” Modesty thrives in innocence free of cynicism. I almost burst his bubble but let him have his perspective. Besides, I still had things to say about integrity, the bottle was not on my mind. I was trying to do my duty as good Mom. I’m grabbing the chair, the blanket out of the trunk and look up to see where he is, my mouth in full speak motion. He’s picking up the bottle. Then kicking it along like a wayward ball to the closest garbage can, protecting the purity of his fields, his desires for a lovely world. Not a single word of judgement or self-promotion fell from his mouth.
As it turns out, integrity is. And life, sons, daughters are the best teachers.