Integrity, and the Shape of Competence

John Cline’s recent comment in response to this post, has opened up a powerful pathway into a subject that’s been brewing within me for some time. I am struck by how far we’ve come from meeting any measure of competency in almost anything and everything that is done today. What are the conditions required for us to carve out new and valid forms of competence?

To begin, here is John’s comment:

Strangely, you have skirted around an important precept. Craft really boils down to integrity The quality of the choice of materials is all about Integrity. The design process is all about Integrity. The building process is all about Integrity. Ownership and maintenance requires integrity. Seamanship requires integrity. Finally, it takes integrity to know when a boat has done enough, is tired ,un-seaworthy, and ready to be put out of it’s misery. If at any of these stages integrity is lost, boats founder and peoples lives are lost.

I wish I could say that I left the point of integrity hanging to provide an Ah Ha! moment for someone making a close reading of what I’ve been saying! The most I can say is that I’ve been looking at this question from a slightly different view, and I’ve been considering these issues as they relate to sincerity and seriousness, and I had not caught the connection with such a powerful term as integrity and all that it does to illuminate these questions. Looking at integrity alongside of sincerity and seriousness, we can use them all to reflect on each other and provide greater possibilities for insight into the broader questions at hand: How do we act in the world?

I bring competence and its lack, incompetence, into the mix because it seems to me that it is – or can be, if we define it inclusively – a measure of our capacities and abilities to be effective in the world. To do this we need to scrape off the residue of efficiency that clings to our conception of what it means to be effective. This has been our prime excuse for running after technological “answers” instead of seeking modes of Craft in which we can embody ourselves and integrate our lives into the wider world. Let me just reiterate, efficiency is a habit supported by a reductive tendency to isolate easily measurable quanta out of the total immersion of our every action within infinite complexity and then fixate on maximizing this quantitative quality at the expense of everything else. In this way it can be seen as a master sergeant seeing to it that each individual act of destructive mindlessness in our culture’s War on Everything is carried out as planned. We have been deeply conditioned to accept his commands as valid, but once we pull ourselves away from the noise and bustle, from the enforced urgency of his drill-ground, we can begin to see how pernicious efficiency’s demands are on any efforts we might make to, in a word, be competent.

For this to be acknowledged, we need to distinguish between the common assumption that competence is contained within one’s ability to follow technological recipes, and to see that competence has to do with all of what it takes to live within a vital world and to support life. Every justification for the former rests on a supreme act of denial of the actual terms and conditions of the latter. We are not competent when we “do what we are told,” or “what we’ve been taught.” We are competent when we can see for ourselves and when our actions find traction with all the aspects of life that are left out of “Horatio’s philosophy.”

In this way, competence is a measure of integrity, of sincerity, and of seriousness. Since we’ve lost track of what all those other words mean, it’s no surprise that we are confused about competence as well! I would like to get to integrity by way of these other two terms. Let’s begin with sincerity. We are embarrassed by the common understanding of sincerity. It has gotten lost in a mire of misplaced good-intentions and now, more often than not, simply means that we recognize that someone “means well” and is “trying as hard as they can.” To challenge this reading is to be attacked as uncaring. To accept it is to be labeled indulgent. All of this is besides the point.

We begin to discover sincerity when we find some way to look at our selves with some degree of self-compassion. This is not anything like indulgence. It is the space in which we stop looking at our selves, our organism, as something to be dominated and controlled, either by us or anyone else. This is a first inkling that we are not to be the means to anyone’s ends, least of all that drill sergeant’s! For many of us, this begins by a loosening of the grip of our internalized oppressor, built up out of a lifetime of immersion in a world that sees domination as the only way to get on.

What we discover about sincerity is that it has a certain weight. Its weight corresponds to how seriously we take our sincerity and we can also discover that this weight can be modulated so as to be just enough. Not too insubstantial, so as to leave us fluttering in the breeze. It can be found to be sufficient. We can recognize that it need not be so excessive as to crush us under a load that is beyond our capacity to carry it. In this balance, we find room to act. In this space, we can recognize that imposed constraints are a dangerous fiction and that if we remain burdened by our self-imposition of these impediments we will be unable to do the work necessary to see where our true effectiveness might lie: How it might be that we may integrate our actions with the nature of our situation as it is, and not as we would wish it to be.

All of this lies somewhere beyond what we tend to see as a barrier, one that we fear it is impossible to cross. It lies beyond optimism and pessimism. It has nothing to do with maintaining cherished illusions. It is only accessible once we can begin to see disillusionment as joyful as well as necessary. Our reward is the lifting of this great weight of futility we feel pressing down on us no matter how hard we try to cheer-lead our way out of our predicament. The release of this burden more than compensates for the true weight of sincerity we take on in its stead and, as a result, we are infused with a new vitality that is not hostage to the whims of fate or mood.

I’ve long recognized something in what we can glimpse looking at artifacts from the past that show us the kind of presence held within people who lived in truly vital cultures.  Their seriousness shines forth in a form we just do not see in our world. For us, to be serious is to be the opposite of frivolous or lighthearted. The clue to our error lies in the way this reading enforces dichotomy. We are pushed into choosing between two equally valid ways of being and renouncing the other. Seriousness, as we see in the eyes of an indigenous American gazing out at us from a faded daguerreotype, has nothing to do with this form of self-imposed pomposity. To be serious in this way is to recognize the weight of our sincerity, and to achieve that balance, while accepting that nothing can offer us the kind of guarantees we are so addicted to today. To be serious is simply to be present when we come right down to it. And, in this active presence, we can inhabit the realm of Craft and find ways to navigate a course along the intersection between meaning and contingency.

This thought always brings me back to Melville and Moby Dick. What a colossus that book is! After sinking into an nearly absolute obscurity during his lifetime, it has slowly ascended from those depths. I now recognize it as much more than a window on the world of the eighteen fifties. It is one of the most nuanced and sensitive, and far-reaching, portrayals of our human condition. It captures every part of the pattern of interwoven crises and catastrophes we now face. Here, I am drawn to his description of braiding a rope and the way this can be seen as a metaphor for all that we face in life.

Providence River Sloop, from Howard Chapelle’s Small Sailing Craft

Let’s use this as a way to connect integrity with competence. We are intimidated by the rough and tumble, the sheer hard work of life on Melville’s Pequod. This sense we have of our lack of sincerity and of seriousness is what drives us to all of the strategies we take on to reclassify life as some sort of a game. These range from the desperate nihilism of absolutist extremists of all stripes to the faux sophistication of the charlatan relativists carving out profitable niches somewhere along the “middle” of this reductivist polarity. We cannot imagine ourselves existing without the elaborate “support” of all of our technologies of ease and the illusions of salvation and security they entice us with. As a result, we cringe, and slink away, from any and all confrontation with the rough and tumble of life outside of our elaborately framed surrogate simulations, whether rock-climbing or war-fighting, or drug-taking, or church-going. These hide our incompetence from us, but at a great cost. In return we pledge allegiance to violence and death-dealing on an enormous scale, all going on at a rate that is now on the verge of destroying the very fabric of life on this planet.

The misery surrounding us, and breaking through our well defended illusions, is also the source of one advantage we have never had before. We are immersed in a moment of clarity that was inconceivable before now. This collision of universal-seeming communication and the ways in which our predicament’s crises are continually assaulting our abilities to ignore them, creates a situation in which we may avoid the traps and dead-ends that captured everyone who began to show any signs of awareness before now. Knowing which avenues are dead-ends and closed off from us is a tremendous advantage.

Attention is fluid. Once we can avoid pouring it down rat-holes we can allow it to find other avenues that were not visible to those who came before us simply because their views were too localized. The dead-ends they blundered into, too enticing. Their suffocating traps were too easy to rationalize as heroic sacrifice or knowing sophistication. Within this moment of clarity we can begin to recognize that we gain strength and capacity by looking squarely at what we face and by recognizing our own existing limitations. Instead of propping ourselves up by cheer-leading, rooting over our clever “advantages,” or beating ourselves down with excuses for continued paralysis, we may navigate out of the tight spots of our difficulties and work our way out of the extreme levels of our current incompetence. And, perhaps, we will in this way find less threatening seas and fair winds. If not, then at least we will have found a way in which to actually be alive, and act as witnesses to the marvels and wonders of this creation, clear of our self-induced blindness.

The root of integrity is, after all, the same as for integration. As much as we are lead to confuse integrity with obedience, integrity truly resides in us when we are immersed in the workings of our own integration. This integration has internal elements. It also takes place in how we see and respond to our world. Together, these bring us to integrity, just as John has pointed this out.






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