The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Ursula K. Le Guin on how integrity binds past to future,
and makes us whole

Rachael Conlin Levy

Advice came through actions, not words, as I grew up. Values were learned through experiences that often involved risk and humiliation, and character was transformed through test and challenge like clay in a kiln.

I internalized my first value, honesty, when I was seven or eight years old. My parents and my God instructed me to tell the truth, but it wasn’t until I broke their trust — stealing candy and denying the theft — did I understand what I had jeopardized. Burning with humiliation, I first returned to the grocery store to apologize to the owner, then asked forgiveness from my priest, not from behind a confessional screen but in a face-to-face meeting. Shame was a brutal but effective teacher; honesty became the bedrock upon which I’ve built my life. With deliberation and truth, I love my husband, mother my children, approach the stranger, and walk through this world.

Integrity’s root is found in the French integer and the Latin integritas, defined, respectfully, as a whole number or a thing complete in itself. The loss of trustworthiness in our national leaders fractured our integrity, our unity. Fissures widen and deepen between rural and urban lives, and the cracks show in the interactions with family and friends.

Our communities and our country suffer under the strain of searching for a shared set of values. But the development of morals and laws that allow life and nation to be governed with dignity for all — both the human species and the world upon which we depend — will help us to achieve our highest potential.

This is what Ursula K. Le Guin addressed in her wonderful 1974 novel “The Dispossessed,” where she explored the quest for existential fulfillment, and the intersection of the personal with the political. She examined relationship between individuals, and between the individual and his country. Speaking through her protagonist, the physicist Shevek, Le Guin connected time to ethics, and argued that our ability to separate cause and effect justified a life of integrity.

The baby, again, the animal, they don’t see the difference between what they do now and what will happen because of it. They can’t make a pulley, or a promise. We can. Seeing the difference between now and not now, we can make the connection. And there morality enters in. Responsibility. To say that a good end will follow from a bad means is just like saying that if I pull a rope on this pulley it will lift the weight on that one. To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future. If time and reason are function of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and make the best of it. To act responsibly.

Le Guin argued that loyalty is the ligature binding past to future, stitching time into a whole. Constancy in word and deed is fidelity to the self, a loyalty that, as her protagonist Shevek argued, “is the root of human strength; there is no good to be done without it.”

Politicians, led by the president, lied with impunity as the midterm election neared. Integrity’s continued diminishment at the personal and the political level worries me. To tell the truth and to lie are as similar as an object and its shadow. For when does truth ring as sweetly as when one desires to hear it? And when is honest speech reflected in action and attitude of neighbor and foe missed so keenly, and when do our ears know truth with such certainty as when we lack it?

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