A Life Lived Whole

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Real people, real relationships
The more dividedness we perceive in each other, the less safe and sane we feel. Every day as we interact with family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers, we ask ourselves, “Is this person the same on the inside as he or she seems to be on the outside?”
Children ask this about their parents, students about their teachers, employees about their supervisors, patients about their physicians, and citizens about their political leaders. When the answer is yes, we relax, believing that we are in the presence of integrity and feeling secure enough to invest ourselves in the relationship and all that surrounds it.

But when the answer is no, we go on high alert. If our roles were more deeply informed by the truth that is in our souls, the general level of sanity and safety would rise dramatically. A teacher who shares his or her identity with students is more effective than one who lobs factoids at them from behind a wall. A supervisor who leads from personal authen?ticity gets better work out of people than one who leads from a script. A doctor who invests selfhood in his or her practice is a better healer than one who treats patients at arm’s length. A politician who brings personal integrity into leadership helps us reclaim the popular trust that distinguishes true democracy from its cheap imitations.

The media are filled with stories of people whose dividedness is now infamous. They worked at such places as Enron, Arthur Andersen, Merrill Lynch, WorldCom, and the Roman Catholic Church. Surely these people heard an inner call to wholeness. But they became separated from their own souls, betraying the trust of citizens, stockholders, and the faithful—and making our democracy, our economy, and our religious institutions less trustworthy in the process.

These particular stories will soon fade from the front pages, but the story of the divided life is perennial, and its social costs are immense. As the poet Rumi said 800 years ago:

If you are here unfaithfully with us
you are causing terrible damage.

How shall we understand the pathology of the divided life? If we approach it as a problem to be solved by “raising the ethical bar”—exhorting each other to jump higher and meting out tougher penalties to those who fall short—we may feel more virtuous for a while, but we will not address the problem at its source.

The divided life, at bottom, is not a failure of ethics; it is a failure of human wholeness. Doctors who are dismissive of patients, politicians who lie to voters, executives who cheat retirees out of their savings, clerics who rob children of their well-being—these people, for the most part, do not lack ethical knowledge or convictions. But they have a well-rehearsed habit of holding their own knowledge and beliefs at great remove from the living of their lives.

That habit is vividly illustrated by a story in the news as I write. The former CEO of a biotechnology firm was convicted of insider trading and sentenced to seven years in prison after putting his daughter and elderly father in legal jeopardy by having them cover for him. Asked what was on his mind as he committed his crimes, he said, “I could sit there … thinking I was the most honest CEO that ever lived [and] at the same time … glibly do something [wrong] and rationalize it.”

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