On Integrity

Jenny Odell, in her manifesto: How to do nothing: Resisting the attention economy (the book), quotes Mark Zuckerberg saying: “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and the other people you know are probably coming to an end… having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

Integrity is a word that means a lot to me, so this claim caught my eye.

A few years ago I sat down to work out what attracts me to my (superficially) disparate friends. Most them to I met as an adult, so childhood bonds weren’t it. Apart from the odd freelance collaboration, none are or were colleagues. We’re scattered across continents and time zones, so it isn’t proximity. And we don’t always see eye to eye on culture and aesthetics. So what is it I look for in a friend?

Three things, it turns out: integrity, generosity, and curiosity.

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Photo by ricke 76 on Unsplash

Integrity can be hard to define. Joan Didion writes (in On Self-respect) that the word “character” has been unfairly relegated to describing homely children and unsuccessful political candidates. Similarly, “integrity” has been softened into a synonym for ‘honesty’, a bloodless approbation for people who don’t fiddle their taxes.

My guess is Zuckerberg used it in this sense. In his two-dimensional, blue-bordered world, having more than one way of relating is dishonest. By his definition, Zuckerberg has mounds of integrity as his smug, Bond-villain-bland facade rarely flickers.

That’s not my idea of integrity. Nor a quality any of my friends share – nor one I’d value.

Integrity, the kind that makes my synapses pop when I get near someone who has it, is internal consistency. People who have it are like those wobbly toys you can shove over in any direction and they always right themselves. Integrity is the weight in the centre, the internal gravity that keeps a person true to themselves.

Plants are a wonderful example of internal consistency that is not rigid. Let’s take wheat. When I left southern Spain a few weeks ago the wheat fields were already dry and bleached to pale gold. In the north, they are still fresh, damp, and bright green. Neither gold nor green is dishonest, it is simply responding to its environment according to the mandates of its deeper purpose: which is to grow and ripen.

 

My friends have grown. They’ve changed careers, faiths, relationships, locations, hobbies. They are not the people they were. Yet, they are. Because – integrity.

They have internal consistency. All the external changes, however far-reaching, arise from deep roots of character (in the full, Didion-endorsed sense of the word). The qualities of their integrities (which are legion) include self-awareness, critical thinking, dark humour and responsibility. Whatever they do, or don’t, I can count on them to be true to these fundamentals.

My husband often admiringly quotes a friend who said: “I may have low morals but I have high ethics.” This gets to the heart of why integrity matters.

Morals are something imposed from outside; one obeys out of fear or a desire to please. Ethics, though, are a manifestation of integrity. Internal consistency creates an intrinsic framework for relating to others, which is expressed as ethics.

“Ah!” you say. “But without morality, what will police integrity? Are you saying that serial killers and child abusers should be allowed their internal consistency?”

Right. That.

Needless to say: of course not. The point of integrity is that it is internal – a relationship to oneself. People who exploit and abuse have relinquished the relationship to self in favour of externalising their anger, disappointment, etc. They have traded the possibility of integrity for the ugly, fleeting gratification of brutality. They are ethical failures. Though, tellingly, they may not be moral failures. Just look at the Catholic church cheer-leading for Fascism during and after the Spanish Civil War, or the fundamentalist Christians murdering doctors.

Letting someone else think for you, even in the name of “morality” makes violence more, not less, likely. As Germaine Greer wrote in The Female Eunuch:

To abdicate one’s own moral understanding, to tolerate crimes against humanity, to leave everything to someone else, the father-ruler-king-computer, is the only irresponsibility. To deny that a mistake has been made when its results are chaos visible and tangible on all sides, that is irresponsibility.

One’s own moral understanding is an important phrase. It implies that we have to be aware of our fundamental beliefs. It isn’t enough to have internal consistency, we need to interrogate it. It isn’t enough to know what we do; we need to know why we do it. Self-study is a safety mechanism. It helps us articulate who we are, which then determines how we relate to others.

Self-knowledge is what prevents internal consistency from becoming routine. Without it, we can mistake superficial interests or habits for something intrinsic. When we know our foundations, we can build, tear down, rebuild. If we mistake décor for structural support, we get trapped in an unchanging space.

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Photo by Daniel Peters on Unsplash

What does it matter, integrity? (Who cares how I choose my friends?)

It matters because we live in uncertain times. I’m going to go not-very-far-out on a limb and say that many of us are, or will be, in political situations where personal integrity may be the only way to avoid abetting crimes against humanity.

I cannot look at what is happening at the U.S. southern border, specifically; or American prisons, generally; or the farce that is British “democracy”; and believe that things will work out. We may yet halt the slide to full-blown Fascism, but it won’t be by chance.

Odell also quotes from “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau: “If [the law] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.”

One person of integrity can’t stop the machine. But, if we band together, our collective friction might just be enough.

This is what the Odyssey means

As we bid farewell to 2017 I’d like to share a favourite poem: ‘Trouble’ by Jack Gilbert,  and some snapshots.

Trouble | Jack Gilbert

That is what the Odyssey means.
Love can leave you nowhere in New Mexico
raising peacocks for the rest of your life.
The seriously happy heart is a problem.
Not the easy excitement, but summer
in the Mediterranean mixed with
the rain and bitter cold of February
on the Riviera, everything on fire
in the violent winds. The pregnant heart
is driven to hopes that are the wrong
size for this world. Love is always
disturbing in the heavenly kingdom.
Eden cannot manage so much ambition.
The kids ran from all over the piazza
yelling and pointing and jeering
at the young Saint Chrysostom
standing dazed in the church doorway
with the shining around his mouth
where the Madonna had kissed him.

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Unexpected

Saturday, 19 December 2015, I plotted a route around Portland’s used book stores. In the back of my sister’s red Wrangler, a box of Oregon Wine Pioneers. In the seat beside me, a show-copy, its gloss paper cover softened with wear. I hoped to sell a few copies, or inspire a few orders.IMG_20161225_115917

On my phone, a string of Tinder messages from some guy who spent Friday evening trying to cajole me out of the house to the some downtown bar. “The feet are up,” I had replied, by way of refusal. He seemed nice, though, so I agreed to meet him in Old Town at 6PM on Saturday.

The day started out sunny. I navigated between bookshops using Google maps print-outs since my phone didn’t have roaming. Clouds gathered in the afternoon. By the time I got lost on my way to my last destination, a wine distributor’s office in north east, it was raining and prematurely dark.

Driving back to the west side, I thought about heading straight home. I could message my excuses from there. Throwing in the towel by 6PM was lame, even for me. Anyway, this guy, Chris, said he had to be at work by eight. No danger of date creep.

We were meeting at the Roseland Theater, a few blocks from my mum’s apartment. I parked near her place, to have a clear line of retreat. The rain had stopped; the air was cold. On my way to the Roseland I passed a small, colourful Mexican dive.

At the theater, I stopped in bafflement. The building, the whole block, was six deep in teenage girls, a barricade of hormones and cheap perfume. How the hell was I supposed to find this guy? No point in checking my phone — no roaming.

After one full lap, I stopped and stared at the red-and-green lights twinkling high on an adjacent skyscraper. If he didn’t magically appear in the next few minutes, I’d call it a night. Almost as soon as the thought formed, someone walked toward me from the corner I just passed. Please don’t talk to me, I thought.

“Hi.”

One drink, to be polite, that’s all.

“Hi,” I replied.

*** IMG_20170228_102453

This morning Chris woke up at 4AM and couldn’t get back to sleep. I dozed, intermittently aware of his restlessness.

I am tempted to say something florid like, I can’t sleep/live/breathe without him, but that would be untrue.

What I thought, as we yielded to wakefulness was, if you don’t have any expectations you won’t be disappointed. 

Anything is possible, even the absence of us. That is what makes this so precious.

I fell for him like rock tossed into a canyon (still falling). One drink, to be polite turned into three margaritas and a long kiss in the middle of that noisy Mexican dive. It turned into a relationship built on air miles: Ibiza, London, Rome, Brussels, New York, DC, Detroit, Denver, Salt Lake City, Milan, Vienna, Manchester, Glasgow.

We got married in Memphis. Adopted a cat, sold a car, moved to Spain.

All of it unexpected, none of it inevitable. Loving was a fact from the outset. What we did about it was a choice. Of all the things I learned, and am still learning, this is the most important. Life is full of surprises. What comes of them is down to us.

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Storytelling: Suspense

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 20: Suspense

If you want to keep an audience hooked, don’t tell them how the story ends.

Case study: Relocating C Warncke Writer

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What it is:

After fifteen years in the UK and Europe, C Warncke is moving to the American South, and there is absolutely no telling how things will turn out.

Why it matters:

Successful stories combine action with unforeseen consequences. In this case the action is a person — me — leaving behind her entire life (country, cat, cutlery) to move thousands of miles away and live with someone she met on Tinder.

As for consequences, who knows?

Romance, disaster, or reinvention are all distinct possibilities.

In typical damn the torpedoes fashion I charged into this with minimal consideration for what happens if it goes, as the Brits say, tits up. I’m as curious as anyone to see how things turn out.

If nothing else, it will make a great story. And the perfect conclusion to the Elements of Storytelling series. Thanks for following and stay tuned for more storytelling adventures.

In other words:

“Every life, Transtromer writes, “has a sister ship,” one that follows “quite another route” than the one we ended up taking. We want it to be otherwise, but it cannot be: the peoploe we might have been life a different, phantom life than the people we are.”
~Cheryl Strayed Tiny, Beautiful Things

Practice: “Create characters that live and breathe on the page… I realised I had come to know some of these people so well that the idea that something bad was going to happen to them had become almost unbearable. I was turning each page with a sense of dread and it dawned on me that here was the most satisfying way to create suspense.”
~Mark Billingham via The Guardian

Remember: “We all live in suspense from day to day; in other words, you are the hero of your own story.” ~Mary McCarthy

Storytelling: Framing

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 19: Framing

What a story is about, and the conclusion it reaches, depends on how you frame it.

Case study:

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

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Who they are:

Respectively, the Democratic and Republican candidates in the 2016 American presidential election. Clinton won the popular vote by an unprecedented margin. Trump won the majority of Electors and is slated to become the next President of the United States.

Why it matters:

The bitter, split decision presidential election highlighted the fact that there is no single “story”. What we think a thing means and what we believe about people and events, is drawn from a rich mass (or mess) of facts, ideas, information and preconception.

After last week’s storytelling post a reader rebutted my assertion that Hillary Clinton is “a experienced, qualified, sane, humane politician”:

Surely this must be qualified as “by comparison?” Isn’t it a fact that Hillary Clinton:

1) Supported the Iraq War forcefully and was a key proponent as an opposition pol from NY

2) Supported overthrow of Libya forcefully

3) Supported overthrow of Syria forcefully

4) Was endorsed by entire Bush family and most of GWB cabinet officials

5) Received 100s of millions from wall street banks and multi-national corporations

So, if Hillary Clinton wasn’t positioned against Trump and you judged her by her policies she would be a rightwing neo-con Republican.

I think perhaps you should also consider the story telling of the Clinton campaign which would argue that perceived racism and sexism are more important than real policies that have killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries.

 

This is a perfect example of framing. My narrative frames Hillary’s experience and views as a positive; my reader highlights different, but equally legitimate, information that casts her in a different light. Trump can, likewise, be any number of things depending on how you frame him. He is either a robust example of American iconoclasm or a racist shit. He went bankrupt and made billions; the story depends on what facts you put in the picture.

In other words:

“While reality itself does partly determine the meaning we assign to it, it doesn’t insist on any one specific meaning. So, while we all live in the same reality, we interpret it differently. Most of the time, the differences are negligible: at the day-to-day level, we agree sufficiently about most things. But some differences are radical. And that’s what politics is about.

Politics is a colossal magnification of the differences in how we perceive the world around us. And an election is a simplified, brief magnification of that. In an election, time stops, and a complex, gradually evolving jumble of differences of opinion is frozen in a single statistical figure.” Rob Wijnberg via The Correspondent

Practice: “All I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor.” Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird

Remember: “One person’s craziness is another person’s reality.” ~ Tim Burton

Storytelling: Lying

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 18: Lying

Stories don’t have to be true. Sometimes the most powerful ones are pure fiction.

Case study: Donald Trump

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Who he is:

Pathological liar who used exaggeration, hyperbole and outright 24k lies to concoct a shady business empire then successfully campaign for President of the United States.

Why it matters:

Trump is a racist, a misogynist, a xenophobic goon with an ego the size of the wall he promised to build between Mexico and the United States. He is a self-professed business guru who has gone bankrupt four times. He is a self-professed sexual abuser who has said on record he’d like to date his own daughter. He claims to represent the common man but rarely pays taxes.

Despite all this, Trump beat won the electoral vote from under the nose of Hillary Clinton, a experienced, qualified, sane, humane politician.

The only explanation? He told a better story. Because he made it up as he went along.

In their own words:

“In announcing his bid for the Republican presidential nomination this morning, Donald Trump started with what Forbes believes is a whopper. He claimed his net worth was nearly $9 billion. We figure it’s closer to $4 billion — $4.1 billion to be exact.

This discrepancy is noteworthy, since Trump’s financial success – he put his fortune at exactly $8,737,540,000 — is core to his candidacy. “I’m proud of my net worth. I’ve done an amazing job,” said Trump at his circus-like announcement, before referencing his autobiography. “We need a leader that wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.'”

via Forbes

In fact, Trump even lied about that. The Art of the Deal was written by journalist Tony Schwartz. Howard Kaminsky, former head of the book’s publisher Random House said, “Trump didn’t write a postcard for us!”

 

Practice: “Counterattack. The fact is, just as most of us are uncomfortable telling lies, most are uncomfortable accusing others. This discomfort can be used in the liar’s favor. “You’ll often see politicians respond to accusations with aggression,” says Stan Walters, author of The Truth About Lying: Everyday Techniques for Dealing with Deception. “What they’ll do is drive critics away from the issue, so they’re forced to gather up their resources to fight another scrimmage.” Jeff Wise via Psychology Today

Remember: “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”
― Adolf Hitler

Elements: Attention

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 15: Attention

Great stories come from creators who are passionately attentive to everything.

Case study: Jack Gilbert jack-gilbert

What it is:

Jack Gilbert was an American poet who turned life’s most banal, excruciating moments into heart-shattering art.

After twenty hours in bed with no food, I decided
I should have at least tea. Got up to light the lamp,
but the sweating and shivering started again
and I staggered backwards across the room. Slammed
against the stone wall. Came to with blood on my head
and couldn’t figure out which way the bed was.

from ‘What I’ve Got’

Why it matters:

Storytellers often aim too high. They want to convey love, terror, excitement, or despair. So they write about love, terror, etc. The thing is, when you write about love, you get a Hallmark card. The bigger the theme, the harder it is to write straight; it’s like looking at the sun.

That’s where attention comes in. Great storytellers know the little stuff reveals the big. In the excerpt above, Gilbert doesn’t tell the reader that it is scary to be sick and alone. He pays attention. In the throes of it, he is alert to every small, true detail: the slow passage of time, the dark room, the fever (only he uses clearer, closer words: sweating, shivering), the disorientation, the abject sense of failure as the body falls.

If you want magic, prop your eyelids open with toothpicks. Pay attention. Especially to boring, mundane, every day things.

In his own words:

“He explained that somebody wanted to give me the Yale prize. I didn’t know what to do, how to express it. I took him out with my two friends and we had milkshakes.

The next day I roamed about trying to find a way to feel about what had happened. I finally lay down under the Brooklyn Bridge to try to feel something. I lay there all afternoon, and then I called the people at Yale.” Read more

Practice: “Be awake to the details around you, but don’t be self-conscious. ‘Okay. I’m at a wedding. The bride has on blue. The groom is wearing a red carnation. They are serving chopped liver on doilies.’ Relax, enjoy the wedding, be present with an open heart. You will naturally take in your environment, and later, sitting at your desk, you will be able to recall just how it was dancing with the bride’s redheaded mother, seeing the bit of red lipstick smeared on her front tooth when she smiled.” Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones

Remember: “As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly and unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost.” ~E. B. White