When my father was growing up life seemed so much more straightforward and simpler. There were many things that marked that timeframe during which he was growing up in the early twentieth century. Men knew most of the other men they did business with and that included their reputation and character. There wasn’t a need many times for a lengthy legal document to outline the terms of a deal or commitment. Sometimes the deal was sealed with a handshake because you knew the person was trustworthy.
When handshakes are thought to have started back in the fifth century in Greece, they represented a symbol of peace because it demonstrated the other person was not carrying a weapon.
The pandemic over the past year has eliminated handshaking broadly for everyone as too risky a behavior in passing along the virus to someone else, but the value of the handshake as a mark of character and trustworthiness was already diminishing. It was “common” for anyone and everyone to do and it seems no one thought much about its meaning or if it even had a meaning beyond a simple gesture.
I don’t think fist bumps and other popular ways of greeting one another in recent years offers much true symbolism. I am an old-fashioned girl who is proud of the integrity of my father who I still hear spoken of in our community as one who was such a man of high moral character even 25 years after his death.
A man’s (or woman’s) word was his (or her) honor or bond back then. Breaking it (with or without a handshake) was noted as a thing of disgrace. Perhaps that was because there was an inherent understanding of a principle that we stopped heeding long ago: if actions or deeds do not match the words, trust the actions rather than the words.
Too often words are used to try to convey something that will make us look good or gain some privilege or favor from someone else. From childhood onward we learn how we can use words for our advantage, but we don’t always learn the consequences of false promises or using words to gain something without ever intending to keep the promises we have vowed. It’s part of the habit of wearing an invisible mask to keep the truth of who we are hidden. Sadly, long before masks were mandated it became common to keep much about what we exposed about ourselves concealed. Little wonder that the depth of relationships also has eroded as well.
“The first requirement in a personal relationship is to be ourselves. Off with the masks. Away with the pretense.”Eugene Peterson in Run with the Horses
Little wonder that we have lost whatever moral compass we once had. The modern era we live in finds us doing business and making deals with people and businesses owned and run by men and women we have never met. Even if we were in a room and could do a handshake, we wouldn’t have the same amount of information to know if it were a trustworthy enterprise.
Integrity between persons, businesses of all kinds, institutions, and governments are often rare. The name of the game is to “get ahead” and “look good” or “climb the ladder” and do whatever it takes to accomplish it.
“Integrity means continuity. The word itself comes from the Latin word integer, meaning ‘entire,’ or ‘whole.’ It means coherence, unity, soundness. With integrity, things are not ambiguous. There is clarity, morally or otherwise. To have integrity means to have an absence of duplicity. In ethics, it means to have consistency of character or uncorrupted virtue. A man of integrity has his words and deeds integrated, with no sunlight in between the two.”Charles Causey in Words and Deeds: Becoming a Man of Courageous Integrity
This is a very powerful description from Charles Causey from his book that I reviewed in 2018. It is clear this U.S. military chaplain understands well the moral center that should guide our lives.
Why have our priorities changed, our values shifted?
It’s likely that we made one little compromise so long ago that we cannot even recall. Over time, compromise became a habit we barely noticed and with it the trustworthiness of our words began to erode. Meanwhile we failed to notice that others noticed that our words were often meaningless, self-serving, and not indicative of character or integrity at all. After all, wasn’t everyone doing it? We listened to ads and then discovered they were not representing the truth. We listened to people in a wide array of positions and trusted them only to discover they had not spoken the whole truth to us.
“The setting of priorities is not a once-and-for-all act. It has to be redone frequently. Balances shift. Circumstances change. Moods swing. Is it still God, in fact, with whom I have first of all to do, or is it not? Prayer is the place where priorities are reestablished.”Eugene Peterson in Run with the Horses
Jesus makes clear the value of words and deed matching in a parable in Matthew:
28 “Tell me what you think of this story: A man had two sons. He went up to the first and said, ‘Son, go out for the day and work in the vineyard.’ 29 “The son answered, ‘I don’t want to.’ Later on he thought better of it and went.30 “The father gave the same command to the second son. He answered, ‘Sure, glad to.’ But he never went. 31-32 “Which of the two sons did what the father asked?”Matthew 21:28-32 (MSG)
The famous molder of children’s character, Mary Poppins, spoke of the peril of making pie crust promises. You may recall that she told the children they were ones that were easily made, but easily broken as well.
Maturing should mean no longer making pie crust promises and remembering the value of our words. They can slip out easily but can leave a trail of chaos in their wake. It’s long past time to consider the values and moral compass guided by words and actions matching, no matter who is saying them or how much we want to believe them.