There is a common saying: “do as I say, not as I do.” One typically gives it when exposed as not living what they preach. I must admit I feel a twinge of guilt every time I tell my children not to eat sweets before their dinner…but then I violate that rule myself all the time. It’s not that I don’t believe what I’m telling my kids, it’s just that I’m not as disciplined as I ought to be.
Of course, there is a great honesty in being able to admit that we aren’t living how we know we should. Being aware of this gap between our convictions and our behaviors is, in the conscientious person, the first step to closing that distance. One who is sincerely trying to rectify this inconsistency is acknowledging that they are not currently built upon the truth, but they are in the process of moving towards it.
If, on the other hand, we recognize the gap between our behavior and what is right, but we aren’t troubled enough by that difference to try and change, then we are living without integrity. We are pointing at the flaw in our foundation and saying, “I’m okay to live with that.” We are establishing for ourselves a hierarchy where the conscience is made inferior to our current level of comfort.
Which is, of course, is another character flaw. In fact, it is a more fundamental flaw than the one that we started with. As bad as any other shortcoming might be, even more damning than it is unwillingness to change. This is the one crack in our foundation that prevents all other cracks from being patched. One might notice a logical conundrum here: if one has the flaw of being unwilling to change, how can one change themself to stop being that way? Is their situation totally hopeless? Thankfully not! We have to remember that we are divine souls, not machines. Our flaws are not irreversibly programmed into us. We have the ability to choose the very things we have never been willing to choose before. Not only that, but we also have the capacity to be redeemed by divine intervention, having changes made in us by God that we did not have the power to make ourselves.
Progress, not Perfection)
Compare the mantra of “do as I say, not as I do,” to the oft-told story of Gandhi and sugar. It is said that a woman came to Gandhi, asking him to tell her son that he should cut sugar out of his diet. Gandhi agreed, but first asked the woman to leave with her son and come back a number of weeks later. The woman did so, and in the second meeting Gandhi gave the desired counsel to the son. The woman was grateful, but asked Gandhi why he couldn’t have just had the talk with her son when she came the first time. His response was that he could not tell the son to stop eating sugar, because at that time he was still eating sugar, too!
This story, whether true or not, illustrates the principle of choosing to change oneself rather than be a hypocrite. This isn’t to say that we must all be perfect before we can advocate for what is true, but at the very least it should be expected that we are actually, genuinely trying to do the things we counsel to others.
This is what we aspire to: genuine trying. As it says in the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book: “No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles… We claim spiritual progress, not spiritual perfection.” Those that sincerely try to live in accordance with their conscience will all fall short, but because their intentions are sincerely aligned with the truth, they are still in harmony with it. If we try to play our notes at our sincere best, even if we occasionally get some of them wrong we are still part of the music.