Catastrophe: 1) an event causing great and often sudden damage or suffering; a disaster. Ex: “a national economic catastrophe”
2) the denouement of a drama, especially a classical tragedy.
Have you ever watched yourself screw something up royally? Made a promise to pay you couldn’t possibly keep unless you won the lottery? Deliberately lied to a loved one, even though you knew you’d be better off telling the truth? Covered up a mistake at work? Blamed somebody else who was totally innocent? And realized perfectly well you couldn’t pull it off, but you couldn’t stop yourself, either?
Of course you have. We all have, at one time or another. Tell me, what did you think when you saw yourself doing that wrong? What did you think when it blew up in your face? Did you think, or did blame and shame flood your soul and blank out thought?
You don’t really have to tell me, because I already know. Trust me, you probably haven’t done a damned thing I haven’t done, in one way or another. The details might be different, but the screw-up is basically the same.
Am I not a man? And is a man not stupid? I’m a man, so I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe.
— Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek (from the movie)
But I’m not talking about the results of screw-ups today. What interests me is the process of screwing up. When we cook the situation so that it’s gonna boil over, no matter what… and somewhere in the back of our heads we know exactly what’s going to happen next, even as we desperately wish it won’t.
Why do we do that? Well, I think there are several possible reasons for it. They’re all pretty interesting.
Sometimes we do it because we think there’s a chance we can squeak it through and nobody will ever know we were taking an iffy shortcut. Sometimes we’re caught in a bind and don’t want anyone to know, because we all hide our realities from others — it can be painful to let someone else in that deep. Sometimes we think it gets us the necessary results to please others, even when we have to cut a few corners to do it. But I think we often do it because our souls, our unconscious minds, are trying to teach us something we can’t learn any other way.
There is little else as mystifying as watching yourself aim a behavioral gun at your shoe, pull the trigger, and blow your toes away… figuratively, of course. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shot myself in the foot. Times when I’ve done something a little sneaky, a little sly, a little wrong, and knew perfectly well I wasn’t behaving as I should. Times when I’ve told myself that anyone else would do the same thing. Times when I knew somebody else would do the same thing… but forgot to remember that somebody shouldn’t be me.
But sometimes I’ve found that when I behave in a way that I know isn’t quite right, but it feels like I’ve been taken over and my strings are being pulled, I’ve been led into a situation that is designed to teach me something. And when this happens, the lesson is pretty freaking obvious, because it lands right in my face.
And when I stopped to look at my actions honestly — usually after I’d been bitten in the butt — I had to admit that at the time I screwed up, I knew what I was doing and that it was wrong, no question about it. I might try to justify it, but usually the reason for my actions was that I was going for a short-term solution, a way to make myself not hurt right then and the hell with anyone else. Or I couldn’t resist the temptation. Or I was acting completely from fear… usually completely irrational, completely self-generated, and completely at odds with the reality in front of me.
It isn’t hard to create your own classical tragedy, if you let this happen often in your life. I’ve certainly done it. But the awful truth is that humans learn solely through mistakes, conflict, and stumbling. There are no lessons learned when life is smooth, only when it’s confused: because without a questioning mind, you won’t give yourself space to think about what you’re doing, or if you’re headed in the right direction.
You can’t make the space to learn easily if you’re too confident, or if you’ve coated yourself in teflon. Then you have to learn through longer, harder, more painful falls. You have to break open before you can grow. Look at seeds, after all — they completely self-destruct in order to create a plant. It takes water and the bacteria in the soil to attack the seed covering and break it down so the seedling can emerge. This catastrophe of decay creates the opening for growth.
Who among us isn’t capable of a deep level of contradiction in how we live our lives, creating catastrophe? The financial planner who steals to support a gambling habit, the politician promoting the “War on Drugs” who is addicted to painkillers, the pious woman conducting a torrid affair, the devoted husband who disappears — only to be found later under an assumed name, living with his other family of whom his wife knew nothing. These stories are not new. A double life built on lies is not new. And to some degree, if we do not love ourselves enough to look at our behavior honestly, we are all capable of these lies and living out of integrity with ourselves.
But there are traps in “integrity” as well. There is a narrow, rigid criteria for integrity in this society. The “straight and narrow path” isn’t just an image. We hold our public figures to a level of scrutiny that is astounding, while at the same time it is blind… because we obviously don’t hold everyone to the same level of criticism, public whipping, or even death by (verbal) stoning. Look at what happened to Brian Williams, the newscaster. He certainly lied about being under fire in Iraq so many years ago, but even though most people believe the war in Iraq was wrong, it will take a lot to hold the Bush administration accountable for that war. So far, Williams is the only casualty beyond the soldiers and civilians who lost their lives, limbs, or sanity in it.
There is a much deeper meaning to the word “integrity” and how you live it. The dictionary definition (from Merriam-Webster Online) is:
1) firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values : incorruptibility
2) an unimpaired condition
3) the quality or state of being complete or undivided : completeness
While you can emphasize integrity in its first meaning, the quality of being incorruptible, it’s awfully rigid when applied to human behavior. We all like to think of ourselves as being incorruptible, but the truth is that it doesn’t really take as much as we think to sway us into wrongdoing. Consider the famous psychological experiment done in the 60s with subjects who were given “power” over others through the ability to administer electric “shocks” (faked) to people who were being questioned in another room. The test subjects nearly all raised the voltage on these faked shocks to inhuman levels, because they thought they were being ordered to do so.
Integrity in its second definition applies less to humans, because we don’t speak of babies as having integrity. And honestly, no human remains in their original condition, which is probably a good thing. In regard to human behavior, it is really the third definition of integrity that applies, “the quality or state of being complete and undivided“. This relates to our sense of ourselves being whole persons, able to act from a healthy state of mind and not from a disconnect between our words and our behaviors.
So integrity doesn’t mean handling everything easily, but being honest about when you fail or stumble. It doesn’t mean never making a mistake, but owning up to the ones you’ve made and offering amends where and when you can. It doesn’t mean never making promises, but making promises you’re sure you can keep… or else being honest about breaking or bending them. It’s not about being some inhuman, rigid, always-accommodating being, but about being yourself, which includes mistakes, broken promises, inadvertent stumbles, and the occasional pratfall. It is about healing the disconnect between your words and your behaviors. And it’s also about being gentle with yourself when those things inevitably happen.
Being honest about those mistakes, stumbles, pratfalls, and especially broken promises trumps the fact that they occurred, even if the other party chooses to hang on to their disappointment in you. Tragic outcomes excepted (which are blessedly rare), most times we hold on to the pain of disappointment far longer than the actual pain of the result. And most times we beat ourselves up for a failure longer than the other person suffered.
I’m not saying we’re all automatically off the hook for our actions — far from it. We’re given consciences and sense of justice and integrity for a reason. But what I am saying is that we need to look at our failures in a light that shines not only on what is fair to others, but also fair to ourselves. And sometimes being fair to yourself means that you disappoint another.
I have paid the price of refusing to learn early lessons in integrity. It has taken several catastrophes of my own making to teach me how to be true to myself and my values. I have learned through experience that life is much less painful if I live in integrity… because my mistakes always bring that back to me in a hurry. It is those bites in the butt — or knowing they will come — that tell me it is time to make my actions right, to make amends, or to make adjustments in what I expect or what is expected of me.
As we grow and work through challenges, we contribute to the spiritual zeitgeist of the times. One person’s triumph over pain and tragedy is a victory for all, because the story can be told and re-told to educate us. We learn through story as well as through behavior. And our stories are more powerful when they include both our mistakes and our recoveries, our catastrophes and our triumphs.
Transformation is a rocky road. None of us traverse it gracefully, none of us execute it without a misstep or even a catastrophe — several at least. But life is a cha-cha, not a line dance. If somebody isn’t going backwards, you’re not doing it right. The good thing is you’re hearing the music.