How do you grow or lose character? It took two moments on our recent Kruger trip to find out.

Character and integrity are often found and lost in what may seem to be the small moments.

Breaking Point

It was the last night of our recent trip to the Kruger National Animal Park. We had decided that we would enjoy our final meal at the restaurant so we didn’t have to bother with making a fire and a meal and cleaning up after a long [and incredible] last day in the car.

The restaurant was right next to the typical Kruger tourist shop that sold all the t-shirt and mugs and gifts for people back home. While Val and her dad went to go find a table [and spot a distant rhino on the horison which completed their Big 5 viewing for the day] i ducked into the shop to get something small for my mom.

i saw a fridge magnet that i thought she might like and as i reached for it, my hand must have brushed another one which promptly fell off the wall and broke into two pieces. i immediately swooped down and grabbed both pieces in my hand and kind of froze in disgust and disappointment. A quick scan of the area around me let me know no-one had seen what happened and so i subtly deposited the pieces on a nearby shelf and grabbed my magnet and went to go and pay for it.

And went to the restaurant to join Val and Shane for the meal.

The thing about character or integrity is that you can lose it or damage it in a quick moment just like that. But if no-one else witnesses it, then is it possible that it’s only something you have to deal with in your head. Have you really lost integrity if no-one else saw anything?

A late save

Turns out there are a lot of good quotes about Integrity. C.S. Lewis gives perhaps one of the most well-known ones when he writes: Integrity is doing the right thing, even if no-one is watching.

While fear or perhaps embarrassment at my actions had allowed me to so quickly act in a way that doesn’t feel consistent with my values at all, there was fortunately something still at play. The inward voice reminding me who i am and not who i like to think i am or maybe look like i am.

At that point, i believe i would have gotten away with it. And i imagine within a day or two having told myself that “It wasn’t a big deal!” i would have likely forgotten about it and just carried on with life, going back to believing i am the person i like to think i am. Maybe brought the incident out as a ‘fun story’ at some other family gathering or ‘Remember that time when…’ moment.

Fortunately, something inside of me refused to believe that is who i am. Even, and maybe especially, when no-one is watching. While we were waiting for the food i excused myself and rushed back into the shop, found the pieces and nervously stood in line, ready to out myself and receive whatever was coming [an angry look, having to pay for a broken magnet].

Turns out the cashier seemed a little surprised but didn’t make a big deal of it and didn’t even make me pay which i had offered to do. Seems like character and integrity are aspects of our person that can both grow and be shattered whether anyone else knows about it or not.

Which brings me to another great quote i read as i was writing this piece: Success without Integrity is Failure! [anonymous]

Dr Steve Maraboli says it another way: The Truth of your Character is expressed through the Choice of your Actions. 

Character quote

i love to think of myself as the guy who returns the broken magnet and owns up to his mistake. But the truth is, i am ALSO the guy who breaks the magnet and tries to hide it and pretend it didn’t happen. 

i want to be thought of, i guess, as the guy who does the race work, who reaches out to connect with someone who might be going through a hard time and feeling a bit cut off from people; the one who encourages and challenges people to be their best selves; the one who volunteers with kids in schools who are not given the same kind of focus and attention as other schools.

But i am also the guy who struggles to not lose it verbally on the hockey field making sound effects in the ref’s direction more than likely to cover for my lack of fitness and skill;  i am also the guy who doesn’t do so well emotionally when other people win a game; the guy who chooses to be right quicker than he chooses to love; and i am the guy who breaks a magnet in a shop and hides it for fear of being caught out.

The well-known parable of the two wolves raging inside of you comes into play. The one which wins will be the one you feed the most. And so an interruption of the wolf who whispers: Just scoop it up and put it on the shelf and no-one has to ever know, is a step in the right direction. It’s a step towards character and integrity. And hopefully accompanied by a commitment to do better quicker next time.

i do want to do better. i do want to be better. But there needs to be a built-up consistency in actions and words that play out the values i say i believe and hold to. i see that Kruger moment as both a failure and a victory and fortunately the little victory is the defining moment of that particular tussle. But becoming the person that doesn’t need to go back and repair the wrong action is where the work needs to be.

[For a partner piece on Owning your Mistakes. click here]