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If only we meant what we said...

When you mean what you say-
By Sophie Ngugi, January 2013
In the last few days I have been reflecting on the issue of integrity and authenticity. This was sparked by a minor incidence that ‘should have passed unnoticed’ but to me provided some insights and challenges. In a group where a friend had posted about death of certain former teacher, I watched as people give condolences on the same. It took a while before I could do the same for personal reasons. Eventually I felt the urge to comment on the same, so I posted my condolences to the family and wished them peace but also added a comment that indicated that there was no love lost between me and that teacher (RIP). I mentioned that he is the only teacher from my former primary school who I had bad experience with but “had forgiven him and moved on eventually”. This does not mean I would have hugged him if we had met before he died, forgiveness for me means letting go of the bitterness associated with the act of the person. Somehow I can confidently say that teacher hated my guts and I hated him for that. (Not yet time to start preaching to me about love thy enemy ).

When I analyze this as an adult now, it is more of mistreating a child and what that means for the child. I can still recall the incidences but I will not put it to writing. That is neither here nor there, my view of him doesn’t necessary summarize his character nor his views of me. My main point on this experience is the conversation that ensued between me and someone who I don’t know but had read my comment. He sent me message indicating that that was not fair for me to write that. I reflected on this and thought...hmmm may be sometimes sincerity is not enough. So I told him I would take down the comment not because I felt it was wrong but because it may hurt others, while retaining I did not think there was anything wrong with indicating I was not in good terms with someone just because they had died. I did take down the comment ‘for the sake of peace’. However his comment perturbed me “Sophie you are a mentor to many kids, you are a role model to many...” I was perturbed, I actually mentor young girls and boys to be themselves and speak their mind. I got reflecting, was the person more concerned about the truth of the issue or about speaking bluntly while being lukewarm works better?

The incidence got me thinking more about what we experience in Kenya each and every day. In a few weeks’ time, Kenya will go into elections. The airwaves are saturated with political activity of all kind, coalitions, mergers etc. with promises of heaven on earth. Most of the players in the current political scene have been in the ‘game’ for more years than majority of voters have been alive! For some of them, their development record (or rather lack of) is so clear to any eye; yet they continue promising ‘manna’ if we “give them a chance”. The sad part of it is that in all these rallies there are 10s of thousands of Kenyans of sane mind clapping and cheering on. In other cases, we, Kenyans of sound mind are abusing each other on social media in support of our candidate. I wonder what would happen if a politician took the platform and declared “I am not very sure what I can do for you, I do not think we will achieve xxx in the five years but I will do my best to ensure at least there is no corruption in the xyz sector/county. This still means the will still be a high level of unemployment and you need to work extremely hard since nothing will come for free but ...” Would she or he even finish that sentence? Is it more ‘swag’ to have people say what will please our ears even when we know it is all lies?

I am reminded of lyrics of a song by BabyFace whose chorus goes - “Bring back those simple times of yesterday, when a man was a man and a friend was a friend. Bring back those simple times of yesterday, when you said what you meant, and you meant what you said”. I don’t know if sincerity got depleted over the years, whether yester-years people were more tolerant to truth, more authentic but the message is clear. There is something missing as far as integrity is concerned. The Wikipedia Encyclopedia defines integrity as consistency in actions, values, principles etc. It goes further to define it as honesty, truthfulness or accuracy of one’s actions with the opposite being hypocrisy. The simplest definition of integrity that I have come across is “when you mean what you say, and say what you mean, do what you said you will do, or apologize in advance when you cannot”. It is as simple as that. As usual children are best at meaning what they say, a child will tell you “I hate you” for bouncing them on a birthday because at that particular moment they mean exactly that. Even if it will only last a few seconds, at the moment that they say it, they mean each and every word. They soon forget and forgive you and move on and the next time that you do something nice tells you “you are the greatest auntie in the world”. Adults on the other hand will tell you “it is okay, I really don’t mind” and hold the grudge for years. Very few times do we get to ‘shoot from the hip’ and mean it.

We have learnt to measure our words and don’t say what we mean since that is what’s expected of us. Someone once commented that if you invite a Kenyan for an event and they tell you “I am not sure about my availability but I will try my best” then just know they have no intention of appearing! If they say I might be late, just know you will be lucky if they turn up! One critical issue about integrity is that we make people plan their event or life around your word and then you do not keep the word and inconvenience them. It could be as major as a promise of marriage to as simple as a promise to call. I recall the parable of Jesus on the wedding feast. Many guests were invited but did not turn up. If you have ever organized an event around ‘confirmed guests’ and they bounce you and you wonder where to take the food then you understand the frustration. One common one is the ‘sins of mobile phones’. At one time I stood in the streets to give a piece of mind to someone (with my eyes only of course) when I overheard him say “I am almost in Nakuru wait for me” and he was walking in the streets of Nairobi, possibly on the way to the bus stop at best! Nakuru is about 156KM from Nairobi. I imagined the other person making plans around these words! (Mind you there are no flights to Nakuru so at best he would take 2 hours after boarding a vehicle which he had not yet done). What if you are expecting someone in 30 minutes and they let you know they will take another 2 hours? Fantastic you can plan what to do for 2 hours not keep all your plans on hold. Rarely will people tell you where they are “almost there” means what???? I suspect this should mean 10 minutes not 2 hour, hallo!

With time people judge our words by our past actions. There are persons even if they say they are sick or late, nobody flinches “that’s just like her/him” we dismiss. Sometimes we do not realize how strong our words are until we are confronted for not keeping them. I think children offer best lessons! No wonder Jesus said we be like little children. My sister had her aha moment in parenting one day. Her daughter had asked for some chalks and requested the mum to buy the white chalks and dad the colored ones. My sister told her “Okay I will bring you tomorrow”. In the hectic day’s work she forgot all about this. On arriving home her daughter who had just started pre-unit class asked her, “mum did you buy?” to which she apologized, she had forgotten. The girl pulled out some pieces of paper “mum I knew you would forget, so I wrote a note which you can put in your handbag so that tomorrow you do not forget” That was a major lesson, she realized that she had not kept her word several times and her young daughter had picked this as habit!

There is folklore about a boy who always cried there is a wolf. Villages would run to rescue and find he was joking. With time nobody listened to him and when the wolf eventually came he was eaten as no villager responded to the call. Our words have power, and even to ourselves. How often do we lie to ourselves? Say what we don’t mean? Don’t do what we promised to ourselves hence not honoring ourselves? In addition, often society prescribes some behaviors that keep us from being real to ourselves. According to Wikipedia encyclopedia, “Authenticity refers to the truthfulness of origins, attributions, commitments, sincerity, devotion, and intentions”. The Wikipedia philosophical encyclopaedia further goes to define it as “degree to which one is true to one's own personality, spirit, or character, despite external pressures”. The privileged moments when one can listen to the deeper inner self and decide from that spot regardless of how the rest of the world feels. This is very tough, being yourself in a world that is always trying to make you different person.

I hope that as the New Year (2013)progresses, I will honour myself by being authentic and practising integrity a one day at a time, a moment at a time, a step at a time.

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