What is the significance of the fact that people in the U.K. are less likely than they were 10 years ago to remain faithful in their marriage, return lost money, obey the speed limit, and honestly pay their taxes? More likely to falsify information on job applications, not leave a note after hitting a parked car, and drive under the influence of alcohol? Does this diminishment of integrity, both in “low level” matters and “high level” ones, reflect a lack of education about values, a “me-first” mentality run amuck, or something else?
What about when a person says he believes one thing, and then changes perspectives - repeatedly? Politicians are always doing this, as this story of President Obama’s numerous shifts concerning how campaigns should be financed illustrates. When is the line crossed between “changing your mind” and “not standing for anything”?
Questions of integrity are important not just because of what they say about individuals, but because of what they say about society. But what exactly is being said? It’s too simplistic (not to mention irresponsible) to point the finger at “kids today” or “those damn democrats”; the issue is much more complicated - and widespread - than that. Furthermore, every time despair about matters of integrity seems to be running at intolerably deep levels, a Rosa Parks emerges to claim her seat on the bus, or an anonymous Chinese citizen stands in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square.
Which is to say that it’s impossible to know with any certainty whether integrity is diminishing, holding steady, or on the rise. Does that mean it’s fruitless to raise the question in the first place?
No. Not if raising the question raises awareness. Not if raising awareness kindles the desire to shape one’s life to match one’s inner knowledge of what’s right and what isn’t. Not if that desire deepens a person's resolve to act in accordance with that knowing in the future. Not if that resolve gets noticed by others, who make a similar commitment. If these things happen, the question has served its purpose. Or, as the German poet Rilke put it,
Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves,
like locked rooms and like books that are written
in a foreign tongue.
Do not now seek the answers, which cannot yet be given you
because you would not yet be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it,
live along some distant day into the answer.