“Integrity”, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, was the word most frequently accessed by their readers in 2005. This bit of news has interesting implications at this particular time when another I-word is topping the list of many discussions. The report also caught my eye because "integrity" is one of two words I've had on my mind lately. The second, because it appears so often in print these days, is "hero".
The definition of "integrity" I find most meaningful comes directly from the word's Latin root, "integer," meaning "to make whole or complete," an origin it shares with the word "entire." A person of integrity strives to model a life of wholeness, to integrate the practice with the preachment, the ends with the means.
"Hero" has gone from meaning "god-like" or "demigod" to becoming a term more applicable to the everyday person. Acting with exceptional courage, strength, ability and charity in certain situations, anyone might be a hero. Heroism can come and go, and it can be confused with stardom. Paradoxically, heroes often eschew the pedestal and identify more and more throughout their lives with common people through shared struggle. Instead of aiming to be gods, heroes seek wholeness and integration.
Our most well known hero of the civil rights movement was very clear about the connection between integrating people and integrating the movement's methods with its goals. In his 1963 book, Strength to Love, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, "Immoral means cannot bring moral ends, for the ends are pre-existent in the means." The brief statement goes beyond making judgment calls about moral and immoral methods. It reveals a plainer truth that explains the movement's commitment to nonviolence: means and ends cannot be separated. No matter what we think is right or wrong, the way we do something becomes part of the result.
Entering a local high school just before the holidays, I was pleased to see a peace sign among the seasonal decorations painted on the front doors. The image I noticed next, placed on a coffee table in the front office where I signed in, was an Army Of One recruiting display featuring a young soldier and the slogan, "Every generation has its heroes. This one is no different."
Later that day, I heard presentations by two actual soldiers back from Iraq who indicated they didn't feel like heroes. In fact, one of the young vets said that it hurt to be called a hero because it made him feel empty inside.
"The loneliness of your self-sacrifice only grows," he said. "I've been out of the Army a year and some change, but it hasn't gotten any better. I don't know how I can deal with this for 30 years. Talking about it helps, but I can't ever get to specifics. Why would I tell my mom what a burning baby smells like?" His Army unit was one of the first to enter Iraq on March 20, 2003, and later he was transferred suddenly from field artillery to military police and assigned to Abu Ghraib. The divergence of ends and means, the lie that claims peace will result from war, can rend a soldier's heart.
On Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, my brother-in-law, a reserve officer in the US Air Force, is scheduled to be en route to Iraq. He and I are the same age, and as a 48 year-old professional in the medical field, he believes that part of his duty as an older reservist is to provide needed leadership to younger soldiers regardless of his personal views about the war. He volunteered to go. "I didn't stay home and hide," he explains.
We've talked about his reasons for going, and his motivation jibes with what I hear from other soldiers. It has to do with brotherhood and a desire to save your brothers from death. It's a heroic impulse that I believe our government leaders intentionally exploit by creating a maelstrom of disaster that keeps drawing in more soldiers who want to save each other.
My brother-in-law, who I love dearly, knows that I support other ways to not stay home and hide that don't involve carrying a gun. When I ask what I should do to support him, he says I should continue to work against war, because "the civilian politicians are the ones who stick us in it." He is entering the maelstrom, and the only way I can think to save him is to follow that advice.
Susan Van Haitsma is active with Nonmilitary Options for Youth in Austin, Texas and can be reached at: email@example.com.
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