Many years ago, my daily bus commute crossed the Mississippi River on the old Lake Street bridge. Then almost 100 years old, the quarter-mile bridge connecting St. Paul and Minneapolis was a wrought iron structure built well before the invention of the automobile. And one day, engineers inspecting the bridge’s integrity, determined it could no longer safely bear the full load of our daily modern-day traffic.
Overnight, my commute changed. On one river bank, the route 21 bus pulled over and we debarked and boarded a large van that shuttled us across the bridge in smaller numbers. On the other side, we left the van and climbed aboard another 21 bus to continue our way down Lake Street.
Decades later, in the 21st century, the Twin Cities would experience the tragedy of a different bridge’s failure over the mighty Mississippi. We have learned to take the integrity of bridges seriously. But what do we know about the integrity of people, and systems, institutions and practices meant to carry us across the chasms stretched between our old, familiar world to the far banks of a future we hope and pray will be better?
The dictionary offers two basic meanings of integrity – 1) the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; and 2) the state of being whole and undivided. Other sources, thoughtfully unpacking the word’s meanings contextually, note that in the dominant culture of the United States, integrity is often regarded as an individual virtue and one measured by consistency. In different cultures, here and elsewhere, it is significantly shaped by community and practiced with adaptability.
Today, in this time of contagion, it’s worth asking, what does it mean to live with integrity? How do we measure the integrity of the metaphorical bridges we need now to cross between you and me, and us and them, and here and there, and then and now and yet to come? Some bridges, made of the most basic habits, are no longer sound. Handshakes and hugs. Community sings and face to face worship and gatherings and breaking bread together. Even some practices of strategic planning are now challenged, because things are changing so rapidly. Just a week ago, when I typed the letters “c-o-v,” my phone’s autofill offered the option of covenant. Now, its first suggestion is COVID-19. Is my brain’s autofill capable of keeping up in a more discerning way than that?
Integrity, as a matter of moral principle and one of wholeness, requires that we let go of rigid attachments to old ways and individualistic understandings, but not of our deepest values. We are asked to adapt. To go slowly. To step back and step up. To choose and take one step at a time in ways that leave no one behind.
I recently confessed to a wise teacher my difficulty focusing in this new reality. She empathized and shared her practice, more important now than ever. She ends her daily meditation each morning by asking: what is the one thing I need to do well to be of service today? She sits patiently until the answer is clear. Then, she does that one thing. Sometimes, she might repeat this 10 times in a day. Others, I imagine, it might take several days to complete a single demanding task. The key is pausing to ask the question and listening carefully for the answer.
Similarly, the Canadian Buddhist teacher Pascal Auclair was once asked how he finds hope in a world with so much suffering. He paused. Then answered, I don’t think much about hope. What I do think about, nearly every day, is what is my next right action?
Integrity is about asking that question and placing it in conversation with our own deepest values, with one another, and with the changing world we share.
The losses we have already experienced in this pandemic and the ones yet to come are and will be many. Our grief is real; we need to feel it and share it. But we will receive gifts in this, too. If we listen carefully, we may discover and perhaps recover what really holds us together – across the 6-foot social distancing, across the chasms of our separate locations, identities and ideologies, across the wide gap between what is no longer and what is not yet.
Everything is connected. We know – scientifically, ecologically, emotionally and spiritually – this is how the world is made. Can we let the integrity of that truth hold and guide us now? Let’s all practice. Align your next step with this truth. And the step after that. Leave no one behind. No one. Like this we will step into the unknown future. Like this we will help one another to live compassionately with integrity and to be of service. Like this we will make a bridge as we go into a future made whole by this knowledge that we are all connected, always have been, always will be.
To experience this practice, settle into a comfortable position with paper and pen nearby and, if you can, set a timer for five minutes of silent meditation or prayer. If your thoughts wander during the five minutes, return to focusing on your breath, as many times as you need to during the five minute time. Let go of each distracting thought with each out-breath. Welcome a deeper silence with each in-breath. At the end of five minutes, notice the stillness within you and in that stillness ask yourself: what is your next right action on this day? If answers come fleetingly, dismiss them, again breathing in and breathing out silently until a single answer settles in your heart with the satisfying weight of truth. Pick up your pen and write briefly about that answer. What are you called to do today?
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Adapted from a reflection published in CommUNITY.