This year, 2020, bears witness to the tale of two Brians, who’ve, by all appearances, embraced life with two different, almost opposing, postures. The year began with adventure and risk. One distinct night in January, I remember lying in bed on the other side of the world. The pervasive aroma of bug repellent in the air signaled an effort to keep mosquitoes away from our hosts’ residence where an active case malaria remained. I drifted to sleep while listening to the yelps of guard dogs outside my window. They were being trained as a third line of defense—in addition to a wall and a night guard—to protect against intruders, with all three defenses being employed after a recent violent home invasion. To add to the general ambiance of exposure, early the following morning, my traveling companion woke me up with “I think we may have a problem. I have some kind of spider bite.” These are not the words one wants to hear when in a foreign place whose arachnids you know nothing about.
My January experience in East Africa drove me to encounter risk, vulnerability, and uncertainty. There was more than one moment of fear. Overall, however, in my first month of 2020, I was alive and in love with a foreign place (geographically and emotionally) that served up many instances of uncertainty. Wonder and gratitude guarded my spirit and fueled my courage in the midst of vulnerability.
That was then. This is now. I am in the middle of 2020 as I write this, and circumstances are quite different. Now, traveling five miles from my home is an adventure. When I exit my car, I strap a layer of fabric over my mouth and nose. Whenever I’m near anyone besides immediate family, I dance around them, ensuring that I stay six feet away and reminding them, hopefully not too subtly, that they should honor my distance. I do this with strangers. I do this with neighbors. I do this with dear friends.
I have not seen my parents or my sister’s family since January—just after I got back from Africa. My life with them as with so many others is digitized over Zoom and Facebook.
Whereas the January me was alive with risk and embrace of the uncertain, today I navigate my life with extreme caution. And I wonder, what’s the difference? Have I changed? Have I gotten more fearful? Have I compromised my integrity by weighing risk in ways that, by all appearances, seem opposite from before?
As I ask these questions, I wrestle with my understandings of awareness and alignment. When I co-wrote the “Integrate” training material for Integer Network, I focused heavily on the sessions regarding these two values. We at Integer concluded that these two ideas composed foundational practices on the journey of authenticity, integrity, and wholeness. An integrated and whole person is someone who practices self-awareness, interrogating her life to better understand her motivations, needs, priorities, and outward behaviors, many of which lie just under the surface of recognition. An integrated and whole person is someone who seeks to align his actions, speech, and priorities with the values organized in his mind and the passions pulsing in his heart. Moreover, an aware and aligned person is someone who demonstrates consistency, more or less, over time.
I believe in both awareness and alignment, and I work to inject them into my life with at least some regularity. Nevertheless, the last few months have left me wondering, “If I’m seeking integrity through awareness and alignment, why do many of my behaviors and postures appear inconsistent?”
There’s a simple answer to this question and a healthier, more significant answer to this question. The simple answer is that I haven’t arrived. My journey to authenticity and wholeness is not perfected. I am a work in process.
This is true, but it is also a copout, casting more doubt and shame on my behaviors than I frankly think I deserve. The more significant question is that integrity built on awareness and alignment is not a static, one-size-fits-all-situations posture. Aligning ourselves with our values does not resist change at all costs. Alignment does not mean stubborn sameness. Aligned values not only tolerate adaptability, they require it.
At least part of the reason I embraced so much risk earlier in 2020 and exercise tremendous caution now is because I’m aligned with my values—not perfectly mind you (did I mention that I’m only human).
For example, one of my highest values is Jesus’ great twofold commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength… You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31 NRSV). At the risk of oversimplifying, I traveled to the other side of the world and embraced increased vulnerability in January because I wanted to “love my neighbor as myself”—to share life and learn from my neighbors in Africa. Now, part of the reason I exercise caution, wear masks, and maintain distance is because I want to “love my neighbor as myself”—to avoid potentially exposing a deadly disease to at-risk people and to do my small part in flattening the COVID-19 curve.
One can disagree with my stated value of loving my neighbor or my application of the value in either or both situations. What I hope is evident, however, is that there is a consistent values-alignment driving my two markedly different sets of behaviors. While it may seem inconsistent on the surface, healthy adaptability is not merely some chaotic, whimsical swirl through life. It is the capacity to embrace ever-changing circumstances in ways that continue to honor the alignment of values, priorities, and passions one has identified as important.
If awareness is the recognition of what’s ticking under the surface, and alignment is the dogged attempt to make all the ticking unified in our being, then adaptability is the willingness to allow those rhythms to play underneath varying melodies of life circumstances.
We are living in unprecedented times of change and uncertainty. Now more than ever is the time to engage self-awareness and to commit to the work of aligning our beliefs, our passions, our words, and our actions. Awareness and alignment will keep us rooted and focused while we stumble through the fog of these days. For awareness and alignment to meet fully the challenges of our day, however, we must grow our adaptability.
Otherwise, our much-needed roots will drive us into the ground, unable to act and move forward with integrity. In our journeys towards authenticity, we can no longer look the parts of people so dogmatic in their convictions that they speak and act from the same scripts no matter the situation. We are challenged to shift and pivot so that our integral values make sense in the shifting and pivoting sands that are here to stay.