Saturday, February 12, 2011

On Integrity: A post in three parts, with apologies to Ira Glass.

Around 1999 or so, when I was in the beginning of my first "single" phase (a phase which would stretch for, gosh, an entire four months), I remember people describing me as having integrity. It happened often enough that I started to believe it. I don't think I understood what it meant -- I'm not sure I know even now -- but it felt good, solid. Sober. 

By the time I bottomed out in 2007, no one would have listed "integrity" as one of my descriptors. I had tossed that attribute to the side and left it behind, right along with indoor plumbing. I knew what I needed to do: Leave a destructive relationship, gather up my daughter, and realign my priorities -- but I was so immobilized I found myself completely incapable of moving even a millimeter in that direction. That inability to budge filled me with despair, hopelessness, and shame in a way I hope I never feel again.

About a month ago, a friend told me I have integrity. That caught my attention, and served as a happy little progress report. Since then, I've been thinking about the concept of integrity -- what it is, how I lost it, and how I can get it back. 

I have a feeling that integrity is like humility -- if you're sure you have it, you probably don't really have it. But for now, I'll settle for a working definition. The dictionary isn't much help, here, frankly. So how about this: I have integrity if my insides match my outsides; if my thoughts match my actions. 

Sounds good, anyway.

What follows is the first of three posts that examine the concept of integrity from different, but uniformly personal, angles.

On integrity. Part One: Juliet, oh Juliet, how do I judge thee? 

I have a good friend who has very specific ideas about who's beautiful and who's not. Indeed, there are certain physical features about which my friend is very, very picky. Anything short of the classic, perfect Greco-Roman ideal, she feels, is just plain unsightly. It’s kind of like how judges look at show dogs: Tail carried a little too high, nose too narrow, cowhocked, with a bit of an overbite... Such a poor creature is lovable in its way, but beautiful? No, certainly not beautiful.

I'm really glad I don't often think that way; at least, I don’t think I do. It’s one of the things I like about myself: I’m able to see beauty where a lot of people don’t. I realize it's not a unique, or even rare, gift. But a gift it is, and I’m grateful for it. Long nose, tiny eyes, a speech impediment, overweight, back hair, one leg longer than the other, bald.... I really don’t care. Or to be more accurate, my better self doesn’t care. As cliched as it sounds, for me beauty really does come from the inside, through the eyes and hands and smile and, well, you get the idea. However that beauty manifests itself physically is pretty much okie dokey with me.

But the rest of me, the darker me, is all too aware that a lot of other people do care about things like weight and eyes and hair. And that really bites, because I care way too much about what other people think. So, much to my dismay, I sometimes find myself judging people, especially potential mates, through the eyes of those others. 

Which brings me to online dating. For a shopper like me, online dating is almost as good as EBay. Hundreds of women to choose from, and most of them really are beautiful. But with each set of photos I view, the light shines a little brighter on my character defects.

Last time around, I had a list of 18 “must-have” characteristics for potential partners. It was a pretty good list, too. (I thought my ex-partner fulfilled every single requirement. That, dear readers, is called denial.)

I haven’t made a list this time. No need to, because my character defects are making it for me. There’s this little toxic spot in my brain that subjects each woman to exacting criteria that are even more superficial than those of my friend.

So. Who am I willing to date? Someone much younger than me? How about someone much older? A woman who is very heavy? Tragically thin? What about a transgender woman? Or someone androgynous? For that matter, what about a guy? I'm pretty sure I've narrowed it down to women, but some are pretty butch, and... God, what if I'm not gay after all?

And as all this is roiling, I’m getting mighty uncomfortable. Because by now, two thoughts have started to sprout through the mush in my brain: 

Wow, she sounds really terrific! But.... but what would people think?

Now, when my daughter was growing up, I never allowed myself to use that phrase, "What will people think?" If she picked out loud plaid pants to wear with a wild flowered shirt, I just gulped and kept my mouth shut. (Well, okay... I would enthusiastically pronounce to the day care that she had picked out her own clothes that day, and wasn’t it fabulous.). If my kid picked out two different colors of socks, I wore different-colored socks, too.

But still, there it is: What will people think if I go out with someone who’s that young/old/small/large/masculine/feminine/loud/soft? Will they think I believe she’s the best I can do?

And then, an even worse thought sprouts: But she IS the best I can do.

Which, you know, kind of takes the thunder out of my being all open-minded and spiritual and everything. It's an insult not only to myself but also to the woman whose profile I'm viewing. Worse, it keeps me from seeing the true red flags, things that really should give me pause. Really, it's just despicable on all kinds of levels.

To the extent that I let somebody else define who I'll date and who I won't, my ability to see beauty is meaningless and bankrupt. Being unwilling to see is worse, I am sure, than being incapable of it. That goes for the "good" characteristics and for the not-so-good.

For me to regain integrity, I have to do the near-impossible: Develop my own set of criteria, ignore everybody else's superficial standards, yet still be open to the wisdom of others so I don't make any really stupid-ass mistakes. If I can do all that, I may or may not get the girl, but at least my insides will match my outsides. It's a tall order. I hope I'm up for it. 

Shit. Where the hell is that list? 

Next in part two: I pledge allegiance to the flag... er, flags. 

1 comment: