Among all the lies we teach our children in Kindergarten, the most pernicious is the value of integrity. We tell them they should share and play fair when their only objects of desire are whichever toy they’re playing with at any given moment, or the prized plastic shovel the kid who licks his shoes keeps hogging over in the sandbox. We teach them the Golden Rule and tell them to treat others as they would want to be treated. We tell them the world is just, that goodness is its own reward, and that virtue always wins. Basically, we take every decent value of the human condition and slam it like a shiv in the prison yard directly through the anterior fontanelle of their soft little heads – and we do this because it makes them compliant and easier to raise.
Once they get older, they start to learn the real values in life from watching us. They see that we don’t play fair, they hear their parents screaming about the redistribution of wealth, and that sharing is for suckers and caring is for libtards. We show them that the universe isn’t fair, that it’s better to sucker punch the other guy square in the jaw before he ever sees you coming, and that every single value we told them was important in Kindergarten doesn’t mean a high hill of shit in the real world.
But the biggest lie we tell them, we also tell ourselves: that having integrity is good. We all like to think we have it, just like we all like to think we’re excellent drivers, despite however many jellyheaded assholes we encounter on the road – but the real truth, the balls-honest reality of life, is that most people possess about as much actual integrity as a thimbleful of rancid chicken grease. Of course, I’m not talking about you – because you’re obviously the exception. Everyone always is.
Here’s the real secret, kids: integrity makes life harder. Having it means staying consistent in the face of confrontation, of always doing what you feel is right, even when the consequences are nothing but wrong. It means standing up to the school bully knowing you’ll be expelled for your trouble, speaking the truth knowing you’ll be shouted down, and never taking anyone else’s bullshit when they’re wrong.
Having integrity – real, honest, jagged-bone integrity – will make it nearly impossible to find your place in the world, because you won’t fit in anywhere. People don’t want to hear the truth all the time; people want to hear a version of the truth that makes them feel good; a comforting lie that justifies their awfulness, and validates their invalid views. As Harlan Ellison once said (more on him in a minute), “If you make people think they’re thinking, they’ll love you; but if you really make them think, they’ll hate you.”
This is the great, unspoken reality of the world, from executives who pay lip service to the quality of their product while only really caring about the bottom line, to people who care about you only up to the point where it stops benefiting them: integrity will get you nowhere.
I am not a virtuous person, although I try to be. I have a long list of sins to my name, and more flaws in my character than an uncut blood diamond smuggled up the ass of a pissed off elephant. I get more things wrong than I ever get right, and my life consists almost entirely of moving from one failure to the next while trying to juggle the 50,000 bowling pins of adulthood without dropping them all. I am a difficult person to know, and an even harder man to live with – as my wife would probably be more than happy to verify – but most of my troubles, most of my failures, and most of my flaws come from one place.
Let me explain.
Sometimes, you’re able to trace events in your life back to a single, defining source. Whether it’s the moment that made you fall in love, or one fateful decision that led to a cascade of dominoes, if you look hard enough and think back far enough, you can almost always find that one key point that changed everything.
I’ve had several of these over the years, but if I had to choose one single, defining moment that made me the way I am, then the first time I read Harlan Ellison would undoubtedly be the singularity that spawned my own, personal universe. For better or worse, Harlan taught me the terrible algebra of integrity, and I’ve lived my life by it.
I’d always been a certain way even as a kid, but exposure to Harlan’s work – particularly, his essays – was a galvanizing experience. I didn’t know then how much of a lasting, permanent impact he would go on to have in my life, but the moment I read the very first words on the very first page of the very first Ellison book I picked up, I could tell something had changed. Something big.
I don’t have many heroes. Never had much use for most of them. My dad was my first and most lasting, always a rock of security and a great example of how to be a husband and a father. But other heroes? They’re too often too human, frail and paper-thin, encased in layers of shiny, impressive armor to keep safe the fragile thing inside. And, too often, the chinks give way and we catch a glimpse of the monster hiding within.
Harlan was never a hero. Never claimed to be, never tried to be. He’s always been stubbornly, obstinately, gloriously human.
Angry, terrifying, intimidating. Caring, understanding, graceful. Warts and polish, all at the same time. He’s never put on any armor, because he’s never had to. He’s never had any illusions to protect. He is what he is: a buoy of truth on an ocean of deceit, and an unreasonable voice of reason. An unstoppable force.
Which made him a hero to me.
As many people hate him as love him, even more have no idea who he is, and even more than those will never realize how greatly he’s influenced so much of what they cherish. And that’s okay. For me, his words, his talent, his passion, and his advice will always guide everything I do, long after he’s gone. Even when I think I don’t want it to, his voice will always be with me, screaming inside my head.
Which pretty much makes me an impossible person.
I don’t have many friends, because people tend to cast off the burdens of their own integrity as they go through life, sacrificing a principle for a promotion at work here, or a long-held personal belief in exchange for getting along with a co-worker there. Every step we take in our treks through life’s desert is another chance to shed one of the heavy winter coats of those values we all learned in Kindergarten, because doing so makes our journeys easier to bear.
But when you don’t do that – when you refuse to compromise – when you truly do what you were shown and taught was the right thing, all the time, all you can do is watch as those around you slowly become other people, until your friends who were progressive and decent once turn into sniveling, keeping-up-with-the-joneses assholes, or the lover you went to bed with in your 20s wakes up with a brand new personality in their 30s. The world changes around you, and people who were once close slowly fade into the distance until all you have of them is a whisp of the memory of who they used to be.
When you don’t compromise your principles, you don’t bend to the changing wind. When you refuse to say the right thing because it’s the wrong thing, you pay the price. When you don’t take anyone’s bullshit when they’re wrong, you’ll never be whatever a “team player” is, and you’re always – always, always, always – going to be The Troublemaker.
The truth is, everyone sells their souls to get by in this miserable world. It’s the price of admission to the great, big theme park of Getting What You Want Out Of Life, and an E-Ticket ride on the flip-flop roller coaster is the key to everything. If, for example, you grow up in the racist South, you either eventually join the club and become a racist yourself, or you find out you don’t fit in, and no one ever invites you to any parties. If you start to toe any line despite your convictions, little by little – innocent concession by innocent concession – you slowly become the thing you once hated. It’s how hippies turned into yuppies, why liberal youth yields to conservative age, and why rebellion erodes into acquiescence.
We all let the world boil our frog, in one way or another, turning up the heat in tiny increments so gradual that we never notice until it’s too late. If anyone ever does have an impossible moment of self-awareness later in life and looks beyond the artifice of their “success” – their manicured lawns and cushy, middle management bullshit jobs – to see the true cost all of it came at, maybe they’ll be able to find a defining moment. Maybe they can trace everything back to one decision that changed everything – but, most likely, they’ll come up empty if they try. Because, while we all sell our souls, most of us do it by the nickle and the dime over decades. It’s impossible to find where it all went wrong, because it’s always been wrong.
Because you never really had any integrity.
When you don’t have integrity, you can tell people what they want to hear to get ahead.
When you don’t have integrity, you get to stand silent amidst injustice, and be rewarded for your privilege.
When you don’t have integrity, every road is smooth and leads downhill.
When you don’t have integrity, you can talk a great game while standing on the corpses of everyone you betrayed for success, and feel no irony.
All of that changes when you don’t yield to pressure, when you don’t bend and you never compromise. Nothing gets any easier when you can see every nuance of any issue, but ultimately know that every single problem in life comes down to Right or Wrong. True or False. Black or white. Terry Prattchett once wrote, “There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby.”
He wasn’t wrong.
If you have integrity, you can’t ever be a corporate Yes Man.
If you have integrity, you can never go with the flow.
If you have integrity, every road is the one less taken.
If you have integrity, each day brings a new fight.
I’m no saint, I’m not the smartest guy in the room, I’m a terrible friend and probably a worse husband, but the one thing I’m not is a liar. I always tell the truth, even for stupid, harmless things. I refuse to let my white get grubby, which means if a friend asks for my advice when what they really want is validation or absolution, I tell them the painful truth and they hate me for it. If my wife asks me if the dinner she spent all day preparing is good, I won’t say it is if it isn’t, and I needlessly hurt her feelings. If – as regularly happened when I was working in the world of government contracting – the boss tells me to over-bill a contract because it’s what everyone does, I won’t do it. If throwing a co-worker under the bus would save me a reprimand for my mistake, I jump in front of it myself – but if it’s someone else’s screwup, I’ll make damn sure everyone knows it and he can just go die on his own damn cross.
I also fight everyone. All the time. I’ve gone toe-to-toe with powerful politicians and scheming millionaires. I’ve faced down scary law firms and private stalkers. I’ve tangled with massive corporations, and been slapped with more cease and desist letters than I can remember. And I’ve always won – even when I’ve lost, and lost big. Because the real battle isn’t over exposing this corruption, or that lie, or losing this friend on that principle, or any of the other bullshit. The real war is over my soul, with integrity as my best and only defense.
Harlan taught me that. He once told me, “You’re one of the good ones, kid” – and I’ve done my best to live up to his compliment, because the man does not dole out praise lightly. I’ve had ridiculous views in my life, backward and ignorant and stupid. The conversation that ended with Harlan saying what he did started as a debate over one of those wrongheaded views, and only turned out well because I realized he was right, and I was wrong – and I had the integrity to admit it, and change my beliefs.
Having integrity isn’t about never changing at all; it’s about never changing what makes you tick, deep down, in your gut. It’s about always doing what you think is the right thing regardless of the consequence, and it’s knowing that every new experience can and should change your perception – but it’s never about adapting to the status quo because it’s easier. Honestly, most of the time it’s shooting yourself in the foot and being proud of yourself for it. Like an idiot.
The trouble with integrity is that it’s a really dumb thing to cling to. It makes fitting in anywhere impossible, it destroys relationships, and it salts every square inch of the scorched earth you leave smoldering in your wake. It’ll make you an honest dollar, but it won’t ever make you rich.
And it’s totally worth it.
ALL THAT BEING SAID, has this whole essay been a self-congratulatory missive on my own quiet nobility? Eh, maybe. If you want it to be. It’s not my intention, but writing is never a one-sided endeavor. It’s a collaboration between the writer and the reader, and you’re gonna take from it whatever you feel like walking away with. What I intend my message to be – what I hope it is – isn’t that I’m some swell, misunderstood dude – that’s bullshit. I’m a thick-headed asshole. I don’t want anyone to walk away from this post thinking it was all about how terrific I am. I mean, who the fuck am I to you? A big, fat nobody. I’m just using my own, personal experience as an example of what clinging to one’s principles like a stubborn junkyard dog gets you in life. I’m mostly a failure as an adult. I’ve never found my place in the world, and I probably never will. I’ve ruined more relationships than I can count, burned more bridges than there are rivers to cross, and I piss people off without meaning to. All the time. I’m easy-going and easy to get along with…right up until Something Happens. And something always happens.
My point is, I don’t know how to be any other way – and I wouldn’t want to be. Being right (even when I’m too dumb to know I’m wrong) will always be more important to me than being happy. I can’t explain why I never back down, or why my fight-or-flight response is permanently stuck on fight-or-fight. It’s stupid! I’m an idiot for living the way I go through life. It won’t ever win me any friends, doesn’t get me anywhere professionally, and it’s pretty much just an albatross of liability hanging around my neck that I refuse to take off.
I have acquaintances who have never compromised their integrity, yet went on on to enjoy much-deserved success. They have rows of novels lining bookstore shelves, hit TV shows on the air, and blockbuster movies in theaters. They figured out how to do it. They learned the terrible algebra and managed to solve the equation. I haven’t. Not yet, anyway. Maybe I’m not smart enough, maybe I haven’t tried hard enough, or maybe I’m just not talented enough. Maybe it’s all of those things and more. I don’t know what I don’t know, but I do know that I don’t know a lot. All I can do is keep trying, and remember this: The only difference between a happy ending and a sad one is where you stop the story, and I’m not done. I’ll never be done.
If you can walk away from this thinking I’m holding myself up as some kind of paragon of virtue or an example to live by, then I’ve failed entirely at what I set out to do.
Wouldn’t be the first time.
Won’t be the last.
But fuck you if you think I’ll ever change.
© 2017, Kristian Bland. All rights reserved.