Integrity

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The title is so simple. Yet the quality or rather the personality is a complicated subset of honesty, grace, piety and propiety among several others. The topic came up today because there were not one, but two columns on the subject in the Opinion section of today’s Khaleej Times. One was written by Karen Ann Monsy on the importance and unfortunate aberration of the virtue, and the other by Allen Jacob, who argues that integrity is overrated and cannot be accentuated as a badge of honor. I do not seem to agree with any.

In my family, my maternal side (and yes, I prefer to be specific) are known as sons and daughters of the very epitome of integrity – Mr. Peter Diago, who practised what he preached and showed unwavering honesty even when hard times befell him, until his death five years ago. In the few years that I was privileged to have stayed with him, he spoke little, but with conviction on the importance of this.

“It’s easy to do what everyone does. Taking the bribe, keeping the insignificant change, overlooking a friend’s fraud, robbing the company’s stationery. Many have normalised the ability to even sleep with it. But tell me, how do you face the crowd once caught?”

It was mid-nineties when I was in the 8th grade. Back then, exam papers were hand graded by teachers and marks were mentally calculated and distributed to students a week before the PTA for student review and discussion. My social science marks were never above average as I was weak in Geography and detested Civics. When my paper was handed over for review I noticed that the teacher had over calculated by 2 marks.

“It was just 2 marks,” I kept battling with my head. But I could not ignore it for long, and admitted it to the teacher shortly. She was obviously appalled, and addressed it to the class. But to humble me, she reminded me forebodingly that honesty will always remain a painful choice.

Not until almost 20 years later did I realise the meaning of those words. I was by now at the prime of my career, working as a full time accountant in an organisation. However, being assigned to a branch, I seldom received the flow of day to day communications that transpired between my colleagues who worked from the main office. One such vital piece of information had failed to reach me on time. By then, I had issued a legal invoice to a potentially vexed customer. The complaint was quick, and the following day I was notified with a warning letter and a pay cut to compensate for the company’s supposed loss. Even then, I was unaware of the change in official policy. My silence was not an act of cowardice, on the contrary it was integral, if I was to save the jobs of my peers who failed to communicate, and that of my manager, who was aware but chose to overlook her indiscrepancy.

I will admit, I am no saint. Neither some version of an Iron Lady. The event broke my spirit, and my confidence. In a few months, on Christmas Eve that year, I decided to tender my resignation. It wasn’t hard, rather a relief. I was to be married in a year’s time, and needed a job that would be less demanding in order to spend some quality time with the family. I’m glad to have left. And just as I had received my end of term benefits, my boss was emotional, and handed me the salary that had been cut, in a separate envelope. She conceded to being aware that my penalty was unjustly imposed. I did not question her, and we parted ways. The real meaning of integrity reached full circle that day – to understand that just because you possess it to some degree, does not mean that others may display it too. It is the realisation that every human aspires to have the courage at some point, but that their epiphanous moment is not for us to predict nor dictate.

But what if we are faced with two such ‘right’ choices, that are poles apart? Then we must emulate Joseph from the Bible. When he learned of the news that his fiancee was pregnant, he was expected like every law abiding Jew to report her to the religious authorities. That was the right thing to do. Particularly for females, who were supposed to be torchbearers of virtue and piousness. The penalty was death, to warn future trangressors. Two lives were at stake. So he went for the loving thing. He decided to divorce her as quietly as possible, so that she may proceed with her life. The rest is history. Integrity here, is what refrains the the self professed vegetarian from lynching the meat eater. It is not supposed to be worn as a robe of justice, chastising people as we pass.

Once again, I may repeat, being a person of integrity must not mean to be an instrument of piety. In fact I am a terrible lazy wife, incompetent communicator, sister and daughter (daughter-in-law is a whole different gray area), but like my grandfather I simply aspire, that when it comes to matters of integrity, I shall always be remembered that I made a fellow human or creature comfortable in the fact that I could be trusted.

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