a fresh integrity

A few years back I gave the keynote speech for a school’s National Honor Society Induction. The first half was a bit ra-ra-ra cheerleader fluff, and I’ve been kind enough not to post it below. The second half, presented below, was something I’d wanted to communicate for a long time.

Now, if you step back a moment and think about it, we’re heaping a lot of expectations on you. “You excel in all areas of life.” “You’re the next generation of heroes.” That’s a lot to live up to – especially for overachiever types like you. So I’d like to share another secret of life, one you might not expect at a National Honor Society induction ceremony:

Admit when you’re wrong.

It’s going to happen. The National Honor Society doesn’t mean perfection. You’re going to be wrong, or do wrong. This is okay. I wouldn’t make a habit of it, but when it does happen, it’s okay. Being wrong or doing wrong is not dishonorable – unless you cover it up. Hiding the truth is evasive … and you’ll notice there’s no “evasiveness” candle up here. Holding to the truth, even when it reflects badly on ourselves, is true character.

Those of you who read The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter this year will remember how stifling a society can be when everyone wears self-righteous masks, afraid to be wrong. Hawthorne wrote in the final chapter of The Scarlet Letter – many of you will remember this from yesterday’s quiz – “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred.” It’s refreshing to be honest with ourselves and others, to admit when we’re wrong. Gosh, it’s refreshing when other people admit they’re wrong. This kind of honesty is a fresh breeze that clears out the stifling, musty air of our wrongs and our evasiveness.

I was a member of the National Honor Society in high school, and I’d like to share two post-high school incidents in which I did not live up to the character you would expect of a National Honor Society member. But I did learn how positive it is to admit when I am wrong.

During my senior year at Johns Hopkins, I took a graduate level writing class with one of my favorite professors. One week I did not turn in an assignment for her class. The next week, as she handed back the assignments, in front of all those graduate students, she told me she could not find mine, and, puzzled, asked if I had turned mine in …

You see where this is going. I nodded my head, “Uh-huh.” I lied – at Johns Hopkins University. She looked a little tired, a little disappointed, but apologized to me and told me she would look through her papers again.

I had taken my problem and made it hers, causing her to doubt me, to doubt herself, and to go on a pointless search for my nonexistent assignment. I had dishonored myself, and I felt guilty.

The next day I visited her during office hours and confessed: “I lied to you yesterday.” It caught her off-guard – the words were so blunt, she had no idea what I was referring to until I explained.

In the end, she didn’t think it was a big deal, and she even offered to let me make up the assignment. But I could tell that she was surprised that I had approached her – refreshingly surprised. I don’t think a student had made such a confession to her before. In the end, our relationship was stronger for it – and I walked away with the resolve never to give myself the need for such a confession again.

When I was about to begin teaching in Silver Spring, an old college buddy of mine and I decided to find an apartment together. In the paper we noticed a house for rent, and made an appointment with the real estate agent to see it later that week. But the next day we found a suitable apartment and decided it was the place for us, so we signed the lease. It was my job to cancel the appointment with the real estate agent, but we were busy getting ready to move, one thing led to another …

Several evenings later, I’m driving in a nasty, rainy, windy, tornado-looking mess when I look at the cars around me and think to myself, “Where are all these people going in such nasty weather?” And suddenly I look at the clock and remember – the real estate agent. And I am already too late.

When I got home I called the agent’s office anyway. Of course she wasn’t there – she was at that house, sitting by herself in her car in the rain after a long day’s work, wanting to go home and wondering how long she should continue waiting for me. I left a message apologizing – as well as explaining the awkward fact that I did not require her services after all. It didn’t sound good.

So I called again the next day and apologized in person. I heard in her voice, “It’s alright, it’s okay, these things happen, it doesn’t really matter.” She sounded like she’d been having the worst week of her life, like she’d been kicked so many times that it didn’t matter anymore, and the very last thing she needed was to wait for a no-show in the middle of a nighttime monsoon.

I had given her the last kick. But hey, as she said – I was off the hook. It didn’t really matter.

But it did matter.

There was nothing I could do to fix it, but I had her business address, so I sent her flowers to apologize, along with a note that said, “I stood you up. You said it doesn’t matter, but it does matter. You are worth more than that, and I am truly sorry.” She received the flowers the next day and called me on the phone. She was actually crying! Something about this meager gesture had touched her with a ray of hope and inspiration.

The things we do matter. We can inspire people with our actions, or we can disappoint them. And, frankly, at times we will disappoint them. At times we will serve for them as simply one more example of the enduring selfishness of human beings. But we can still have the sincerity and the forthrightness to lower our defensive, self-righteous masks, to hold to the truth, and to admit when we’re wrong.

Sometimes this kind of honesty may result in negative consequences, but if we become evasive and defensive, trying to avoid the consequences of our own actions, we teach ourselves that our wrongs are bigger and stronger than us.

We need to be bigger and stronger than our wrongs.

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