“There Is A Voice Inside Of You
That Whispers All Day Long,
“I Feel That This Is Right For Me,
I Know That This Is Wrong.”
No Teacher, Preacher, Parent, Friend
Or Wise Man Can Decide
What’s Right For You- Just Listen To
The Voice That Speaks Inside.” – Shel Silverstein
Today, my employer did something that got me really angry. I’m not going to go into details, because even though she doesn’t read English and I wouldn’t mind that much if I got fired at this point, it would still be kind of underhanded to do it publicly.
However, today’s events did teach me a very important lesson about integrity: When I work for someone, a group, or a company, I need to make sure their values are in line with my own, otherwise I risk putting my efforts and energy into causes that I either don’t care about, or that I am totally opposed to.
When you work for an organization, your efforts are directed towards achieving that organization’s ends. Sometimes, this is great. With the multiplier effect of a dedicated community, your small contribution can have much larger effects than it otherwise would.
On the other hand, if you don’t agree with what your organization is doing, then your energy is applied to something you would otherwise oppose.
This is why Awareness is extremely important in ensuring that you live the life you want. If you don’t pay attention to the implications of your actions, then you end up being taken for a ride.
An Extreme Example
One reason I didn’t join the military, despite having dreamt of being a fighter pilot since I was a kid (I nearly applied to the Naval Academy after high school) is because I don’t condone killing people. I know the military does a lot more than that, and I also understand that in our current model of foreign relations, lethal force is necessary to defend a country. I want to make it clear that I am not saying soldiers are bad people, or that the military itself is an immoral organization.
But personally, I do not want any of my energy to go into an organization that does kill people, even incidentally. I wanted to fly amazing aircraft, not engage in warfare. Even if I was flying cargo planes, I would still be supporting the larger organization and helping it in every agenda it may have, regardless of whether I agree or not.
I support my country and I am all for defending it, but I want to do that in a way that promotes understanding and compassion among people. That’s my choice, and so that’s how I want my energies directed. I’ll work through other channels in expressing my patriotism.
I understand that my taxes pay for American wars, so that is my effort going into killing people. That’s a complex issue, and this is a (relatively) short blog post. Something I’ll write about another time perhaps.
A Real-Life Example
Well, I seem to have gotten myself tied up with an organization that does not share my values about educating children.
It would be nice to hide behind the excuse of, “I’m just doing my job.” I think that’s what a lot of people end up doing, after all. However, if I feel so off-center that I need to reach for that excuse, there is something seriously wrong with my work situation.
Under normal circumstances, I would just quit. But quitting would mean being stranded in South Korea with no return ticket and no visa. Honestly I’d rather be destitute and stranded than compromise on this issue. However, it would also mean losing my apartment and endangering my girlfriend’s job.
Maybe I’m making excuses, but perhaps the mark of maturity is being able to balance the demands of reality with what we’d like to be. Sometimes, it’s just not feasible to live up to our values 100%, and we have to learn when and where we can postpone or make compromises. If I bring suffering on myself now, will that prevent me from doing more good later on? It is simply that some values are not as high a priority as the consequences of defending them? How extreme would the abuse have to be before I’d be willing to take that step?
And that brings me to my second lesson: do not let anyone have so much control over your means of livelihood that your values are dictated by them.
Not only do they own your work in that case, they also own your ideals. Prevented or scared out of expressing your ideals, your actions simply reflect what your employer’s ideals are. If you cannot live your ideals, then they might as well not exist.
So, I’m left trying to find loopholes in the rules that allow me to express some kind of compassion and respect for the kids I teach, instead of treating them like conduits to their parents’ wallets.
Discovering that I Care
To be honest, I’d been warned that Korean language academies were not that keen on empowering children, and I had accepted that as an unfortunate reality, thinking that I could put my values aside for the sake of pragmatism and practicality. However, I’m discovering that I am not strong enough to do that.
I guess what is really surprising to me is that I do have such strong principles. In college, I was surrounded with people who had done all sorts of volunteer work and social service, people who were brought to tears at the thought of the suffering of others. I was not one of those people. Working with people made me uncomfortable, so all of my volunteering was centered around helping nature or abandoned pets. The suffering of animals and trees, defenseless as they were, affected me more.
Yet now, I find myself driven to rage when one of my students is denied a Band-Aid for his burnt finger just so he can get through a single class without wincing in pain whenever he picks up his pencil (that’s not what incensed me to write this post).
I find that my idealism is getting stronger with age, rather than weaker, and instead of being annoyed or trying to suppress it, I’m actually relieved to find that I can care so much about other people, enough to stand up and defend them.
Reality is not Convenient
Life is messy and people are imperfect. I know that I may be asked to trade complete integrity in order to get by, and I also admit that I am not as strong and courageous as I’d like to be in standing up for my values. I guess that’s why heroes are rare. I am still afraid of confrontation sometimes. But every time I decide to stand up and do something, it becomes a little bit easier.
On the other hand, sometimes we use our work or life situation as an excuse to get out of standing up for what we believe in. Our society is quick to grant professionalism and career a universal stamp of approval. Knowing this, we might adopt that stance for our own lives: “I would like to live healthier, but I have to worry about my job, and since everyone knows a job is legitimate excuse to let everything else slide, that’s okay.” Deep down, we all know it isn’t. We shake our heads to hear of families and relationships neglected, CEOs corrupted, and communities pillaged, all in the name of profit.
But if it wasn’t socially acceptable on some level, why would it continue to happen?
The change starts with us as individuals.
So, here’s what we can do to make sure we can have integrity in our professional lives:
- Do our homework. If we are hoping to work for someone, we need to know what our efforts will have on society and individuals.
- Know where we stand. It’s better to know our values ahead of time, instead of discovering we aren’t living up to them in the moment. Of course, sometimes it takes something like that to drive home what is really important to us, but we can always give it some thought.
- Know our own value. Whenever I’ve interviewed for a job, I’ve always gone into it with the belief that I’m the one asking for help and that I should do everything I can to convince them I am worthy of being hired. Going forward, I might use the interviews as much to screen my potential employer.
- Don’t over-commit. The less control someone else has over our lives, the more we can stay true to our own vision of how we want to live. Most of us rely on a single employer for our income, but hopefully we have some money saved or can rely on other people to get by for a little while if we have to. Without this, we have absolutely no flexibility, either to challenge the organization or to leave if we decide things are just not going to get better. Personally, I’d like to be self-employed with multiple streams of income. I will never again make the mistake of needing someone’s sponsorship to simply avoid illegal status unless I really trust that person or organization, or the stakes are very high.
- Take care of ourselves. If we are healthy, we have energy and personal resources. If we are financially sound, we aren’t in debt to anyone. If we are skilled and capable, we aren’t crippled by reliance. If we have a wide network, we have many others we can call on for support. The more capable we are as individuals, the more opportunities we have to express integrity.
(Photo credit: hyper7pro on Flickr)