By Carmelene Melanie Siani
Sometimes we sit across the table from someone to have a simple lunch and, without us expecting it, they become one of our most memorable teachers.
Way back in the 1990’s I had the opportunity to meet such a person when he contacted me about making a donation to the hospital where I was employed. “PR” was a genial man, noticeably gracious and well-spoken who’d recently resigned from his high level position as a Department Secretary for the Federal Government. I liked him and was comfortable around him.
In my role as Director of Development, I’d previously had the opportunity to meet many people of his genre—people of power, wealth, and influence—but he stood out for me. Mostly, he didn’t seem to be self-conscious about his successes in life. In fact, if I hadn’t known about his former role in the government, I wouldn’t have known from him. He didn’t advertise.
As a thank you for his gift to the hospital I had invited him out to lunch at a venerable, old Mexican restaurant in downtown Tucson where the two of us sat for a long couple of hours chatting and exchanging stories.
After a while, after he’d told me many of the details of his career outside of government as well as details from his Washington D.C. days, I asked him what I’d wanted to ask from the beginning.
“Why did you resign as Secretary?”
It took him a minute to come around to answering, but when he did, he told me there were lots of reasons—his wife didn’t like politics, his kids were far away, despite what people think it was a 24/7 lifestyle more than it was a “job.” And then there was the number one, single most important reason. He had looked in the mirror one morning and didn’t like what he saw.
“You know how when the freeways started,” he said, giving me an analogy. “Everybody drove 55 to 60 miles an hour and the lanes weren’t all that crowded. Gradually, people started driving 65 to 70 miles an hour and the lanes got more crowded.” He went on to say that pretty soon, the freeways were six lanes in each direction going 80-85 miles an hour and that it more or less happened incrementally, without anybody really noticing.
“If you’re not paying attention, that’s what happens to you—to who you knew yourself to be and—to your integrity,” he said. “It’s so easy to lose touch with it one mile at a time until eventually, you’re going over the speed limit on a six-lane highway looking back wondering when it all happened.”
“When you’re on one of those roads,” he’d continued, “it becomes almost impossible to drive at your own speed let alone to travel in the direction you, yourself want and need to go. You gotta’ go with the flow of traffic or you’ll be run over.”
“Unlike what people think,” he said. “Integrity isn’t something you lose in one big action or one big event—or even in one big lie. It’s something that you give away one inch—one mile—at a time. It’s something you look back on and realize that it’s gone.”
My friend had given me a wise teaching; one that helped me to not only understand the political milieu, but that I took to heart for my own life as well. Ironically enough, I never saw him again after that lunch. He’d gone on to live his retired life and our paths just didn’t cross.
Recently, because of what is going on in Washington today, with so many people driving on that freeway at top speed, I was reminded of my friend and looked him up on Wikipedia only to learn that he’s now gone, having died about 10 years ago. I have never forgotten him though, and the profound insight and wisdom he imparted to me at that lunch all those years ago.
“Integrity isn’t something you lose in one big action or one big event—or even in one big lie. It’s something that you give away one inch—one mile—at a time. It’s something you look back on and realize that it’s gone.”
Editor: Dana Gornall