Harvey S. Hecker Character Development Series: Our words are a powerful force to build – and destroy.

#5: Integrity: Will the Real You Please Stand Up
Originally published by Rabbi Shraga Simmons on aish.com

Integrity: It’s measured by those moments when, all alone, we confront a choice between right and wrong.

It’s the moment when the allure of comfort, wealth, popularity… collides with the unethical.

Rabbi Noah Weinberg zt”l posed this scenario:

Imagine you’re successful, rich and famous. You’re on vacation with friends when suddenly terrorists burst into your room, hold a gun to your head and say: “Tell us where your friends are and we’ll release you safely. Otherwise we’ll kill you.”

You could save yourself by causing the death of innocent people – and nobody would ever know.

But you cannot do it.

Why not?

Self-respect is our greatest possession, the core drive toward our unique mission, our personal path to greatness.

After such a selfish act of betrayal, you could no longer live with yourself. Because in the end, self-respect is all we’ve got.

Feel Your Heart

In daily life, less dramatic versions play out between the choice of “right” versus “what we can get away with.”

Here’s a true story:

Our neighbor was going on extended vacation and asked us to start up his car every few days. My son agreed to handle it. Everything was fine until a few days after his return, my neighbor showed me a sizable dent in the front bumper. He wondered if perhaps I knew the cause.

When I asked my son about it, his response was thoughtful silence. After taking some deep breaths, he explained: “I was playing with the gears. The car unexpectedly lurched forward and hit a fence-post.”

“It wouldn’t weigh heavily on my heart.”

After we discussed paying for the damage, I asked my son another question:

“How would this story have been different had you chosen to come clean from the start?”

“It wouldn’t weigh heavily on my heart,” he said.

Integrity starts in the heart. In that most private space, a calm, quiet voice echoes the choices we’ve made.

A “good choice” builds my self-respect. When I refrain from taking advantage… stay true to my values… keep my word… live with transparency with nothing to hide… I enjoy the serenity of a clean heart.

As my father exhorted me: “An unethical gain is never worth the price.”

Reality Show

The film The Truman Show portrayed life filmed 24/7. What began as a Hollywood script now plays out in the vlog (video blog) genre, where everyone from marketing execs to adventure seekers to homemakers document daily life in an “abridged” reality series format.

In Jewish consciousness, we are each in a private 24/7 reality series. Everything is recorded and filmed for the audience of just you and God. The Talmud (Avot 2:1) portrays this as “God’s seeing eye and listening ear.”

Will you go to unreasonable lengths to keep your word?

This abstract concept is becoming ever-more real. A century ago, the sagely Chafetz Chaim observed how radio technology reveals a deeper metaphysical truth: Though the “listening ear” cannot be detected, it is ever-present nonetheless.

All the more so today, with recording devices literally everywhere – alerting us to the omniscient Divine camera. And (hopefully) motivating us to do what’s right.

Imagine you’re committed to daily exercise. After a hard day, when you don’t feel like getting off the couch, you’ve arrived at a moment of decision: Nobody will ever know if you exercised or not. Beyond our physical health, at greater stake is our personal sense of pride in making a commitment and sticking with our word.

What is your word worth? Do you mean what you say? Will you go to unreasonable lengths to keep your word? Do you fiercely guard your integrity knowing that your life depends on it?

Identify these moments of choice. Ask yourself: Right now, what path am I choosing?

Popularity Contest

This issue finds expression in today’s world of social media. In a quest for attention and approval, we may craft an online avatar that best displays my “fabulous life” to the point I may even believe that’s “me.”

That decision comes at a hefty price: alienation from true self and the constant anxiety that others may discover the “real me.”

When earning Facebook “likes” becomes the primary driver of my decisions, then I have – tragically – outsourced my self-esteem. To rephrase Lincoln: “You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can never fool yourself.”

Tools for Integrity

A key to success in life is never lie to yourself. Here are some practical tools for maintaining integrity:

(1) Mirror Exercise. Find a room with a mirror where you can be all alone. Look yourself in the eyes, as deeply as you can. A natural reaction is to look away – we’ve lied to ourselves and are embarrassed. When you can fully look into your eyes, that’s a positive sign of self-respect.

(2) Unplug from the grid. Create intense private moments. Turn off your phone completely, not even on vibrate. Be totally alone with your thoughts and feel the stillness of your heart.

(3) Spiritual Accounting System. Every evening before going to bed, look back at that day’s events, and evaluate your profit or loss. Don’t indulge in self-deceptions. Instead, track down your Achilles heel. Clarify “What am I living for?” Make a plan to achieve it.

Achieving integrity is not easy. It requires lots of hard work, energy, focus, patience, discipline – and fierce commitment. Thankfully, it comes with a priceless bonus: the deep satisfaction of living 24/7 with yourself, striving to do the right thing.

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