One of the difficult things about language is that words can often be empty. It’s easy to play lip-service to ideals, hard to live up to them. I’ve always prided myself on matching my morals to my actions, but I don’t often find myself in situations where I have to prove that I live by my morals.
That is probably because I make it a point to surround myself with people who I know aren’t going to act in ways that are counter to my own sense of morality. Among my friends, respect for others tends to be high on our list of priorities, so there’s not much reason for me to act in a way that implies defense of my own morality.
One of the principles that I have always lived by is that I do not tolerate disrespect shown to my friends, especially when my friends aren’t there to defend themselves. This has been true for me at least since middle school, when I broke away from a friendship because that person disparaged one of my other friends. However, I was a very different person in middle school than I am today. Back then, I was much more aggressive in the defense of my friends, and I didn’t care about the potential ramifications of my actions or the fact that I could potentially find myself alienated because I chose to defend someone that the rest of the group was disparaging.
Fast forward to now, almost fifteen years later, where I’m in college and much more aware – almost painfully so – of the potential fallout my actions can cause. The words I say, the actions I take – everyone around me is so much more aware of those that if I say the wrong phrase, people assume that I mean something I didn’t intend to say at all. It’s almost like I have to walk on eggshells to be able to say anything at all if I want to keep from offending the people around me or at least keep from being misunderstood.
It took me years to accept that people typically misunderstand me when I speak…it’s why I spend so much time writing. For some reason, in written language, I make more sense than I do when I speak. Maybe it’s because when I write, people don’t get the chance to interrupt me and thus cause me to lose my train of thought. I can say what I mean the way I mean it without having to constantly be on guard for the potential misinterpretation of my words through the patterns of the sentences I choose to use to convey my message. As a writer, of course, I have to be aware of this, but I can do so by reviewing what I have written. Once words leave my mouth, it’s very hard to back up and rephrase something that is misunderstood in a way that makes the original meaning clear.
In either case, communication is a delicate art. When I am around others, however, I am continuously aware of the potential for misinterpretation of the words I say. Because of this, I am also always aware of the potential misunderstandings of the actions I choose to take. This constant vigilance – it’s really hyper-vigilance caused by two decades of not quite fitting in (the gift/curse of ADHD) – can make it much more difficult to act with integrity in situations where it is called for.
Last week, however, I was powerfully reminded of what it means to have the courage of conviction. In a small group meeting, someone brought up one of my friends and started a conversation centered around trash-talking this person and making fun of this person. I don’t know if it was supposed to be a way for the person doing the talking to feel better – I don’t really care. I managed to listen to two sentences of disparagement against my friend before I couldn’t handle the situation. I stood up, told the group that I wasn’t going to remain in the room where my friend was being trash-talked, and I left.
The emotions I felt while doing so, however, were fairly complicated. I was angry that my friend was being trash-talked, of course. I was frustrated because the people in the room are also my friends and they were indulging in gossip, which is harmful to the target, especially when so many of them are advocates for different types of movements. But the one thing I wasn’t expecting to feel was on the verge of tears. Granted, when I get truly angry, I have a tendency to cry – when I’m furious, I cry, and it takes a lot to push me there. But that wasn’t the reason I was on the verge of tears. No, when I left, I was also highly aware that the group could end up trash-talking me in turn because I chose to remove myself from the situation. I refused to conform to their expectations, and I was highly aware that my actions may cause them to resent me.
As far as I am aware thus far, however, that hasn’t happened. I heard that there was some concern that I wouldn’t show up for a meeting later that night because there was concern I was genuinely angry (I was). That doesn’t mean the trash-talking didn’t happen, or that it won’t in the future. It just means that I was highly aware of every potential ramification of the choice I made by walking away from them when they were trash-talking one of my other friends, and I had the strength to do it anyway.
It would have been far easier to sit there and listen to the disparagement of my friend, to never expose myself to the potential for backlash, and to pretend that everything that was going on around me was okay with me. But my commitment to my integrity allowed me to make the harder choice, to take the harder path. Walking away from a situation like that is in no ways easy, and turning words into actions rather than let them remain empty – that is where the real challenge of integrity resides.