Integrity of Life

November 8, 2019

This essay, which I wrote a few years ago, gave me the name of this website.

The phrase “integrity of life” reached out and grabbed me when I heard it in church a while ago. Those three words express what I’ve always been trying to work toward: why I’ve several times given up my old life and gone to live in primitive circumstances; why I’ve worked, raised my family, and ordered my daily tasks the way I have. I have been trying to find integrity of life. I’ve never achieved it, and sometimes I feel I’m farther from it than I’ve ever been. But it is what I’m seeking. I understand it to be life at peace with myself, the world, and God, a life that integrates work and play, necessity and joy, that works with nature and not in opposition to it.

Life at peace. Photo Andy Zehner

There are other people seeking integrity of life, in their own ways. Recently Rod Dreher released a book called The Benedict Option. I don’t want to discuss the book itself or argue for or against it. I do want to think more about Dreher’s list of Benedictine imperatives, laid down by Saint Benedict in the sixth century in his Rule, and about culture. I may sound as if I am talking about the “culture wars” that we all hate: the strident political, legal, and commercial attempts to make other people agree with us and act as we want them to. But I’m not. These culture wars are not worth spending time on, because they are ineffective, unkind, and show profound ignorance of history and of the real sources of human behavior and change. Their deepest flaw is assuming that the shape and boundaries of our current culture are universal and that the Christian or liberal or conservative response must be to dress that culture in Christian or liberal or conservative clothes.

I prefer the term “countercultural,” but even that is a limited concept. It exists only in reaction to something and is still shaped by the thing it rejects. For example, our modern society believes in the religion of progress – I think it is a false religion, wrong both morally and thermodynamically. The countercultural response to the religion of progress is “degrowth,” or “the limits to growth,” or Herman Daly’s “steady state.” I find these ideas more congenial and more accurate. But what if there is another way of seeing human life that doesn’t even think in terms of progress, regress, or a refusal to move? I can’t say what it would be, because I’m also conditioned by my time and place – although I imagine that the horticultural philosophy of permaculture comes close. However, just accepting that there could be other forms of human culture than the ones we’re familiar with makes the culture wars and even counter-culturalism too limiting as a means of cultural renewal.

So how do people find integrity of life in a crazy society?

The first thing we should do is to be grateful for flaws of the crazy society – if it worked better, it would last longer and offer fewer options for genuine change. Until recently industrial society could afford to ignore many of society’s problems because they had what they believed to be a stable climate and endless resources. But we don’t, and it looks as if our future options could be wide open.

Second, we should always place before us, not what we object to in society, but timeless guidelines—not what we’re against, but what we’re for. We should remember the essential elements of humankind: we are physical, cultural, social beings who generate language and stories, with an inner life, who know we are going to die. We don’t have to accept the current metaphors that limit our capacity.

Third, we should live out our convictions and not just philosophize on the internet. Dreher lists the following as the foundations of Benedictine thought: order, stability, discipline, community, and hospitality. I mentioned that the culture wars were wrong in how they went about trying to change culture. Benedict was wiser: his five elements form both the content of culture and the means of perpetuating it. Culture is a direct result of the order, stability, discipline, community, and hospitality with which a person is raised and formed.

To be specific: in a crazy world, sane people should strive to achieve order, stability, discipline, community, and hospitality, because they are good things and also because they are the building blocks of true human culture and always have been. You can read the rule of Saint Benedict and visit current monasteries to see what they look like in monasticism. Here are some ideas of how these five things might look in our everyday lives.

Eat real food prepared by real people, all sitting together, young and old at the same table, with no distractions. Make this a priority every day. Do not allow anything – even work, even good works – to interfere with communal mealtimes, but feel free to choose the best time for your family; breakfast or lunch works as well as dinner. Train children to stay seated, listen, and partake. Discuss heatedly but don’t fight. Stay at the table longer than it takes to eat the food. Clean up together. Invite guests. If you live alone, still have sit-down meals of real food, and try to have others join you frequently. Look up the Spanish concept of “sobremesa” and adapt it here and now.

Eat real food. Photo Andy Zehner

Visit your food before it gets to your house. If you can’t, your food’s probably coming too far. Grow some yourself. If you have a yard, turn some lawn into garden beds. If you don’t, at least have pots of herbs. Not everyone has to subsist on the food they raise, but even city dwellers should experience the natural processes that produce what we eat.

Read aloud, to children especially, but to all ages as well. Sane people know that the technology they use plays a huge role in shaping who they think they are and what they think the world is – in forming culture, in other words. Reading a book, more than partaking in modern forms of electronic media, is by its nature an ordered, stable activity, that requires discipline; reading aloud builds community and can contribute to hospitality. If you don’t want to read books, go primitive – tell stories to your family and friends. Real stories, not just gossip or anecdotes. These stories are the foundation of our personal identity, just as the common stories of literature, art, and music are the foundation of our cultural identity. If you really don’t like reading or story-telling, you can try reading aloud from Twitter to your friends, families, and housemates. At least then your reading will be a communal activity, not just a solitary one, and you will be protected from the dangers of the echo chamber by the questions and reactions of those you’re reading to. I suspect you’ll find, however, that your children would rather be on your lap listening to Make Way for Ducklings or the story about how Grandpa got arrested for driving with a pig in the front seat than watching the back of your head while you read aloud from some website.

Notice where the sun sets. Photo Andy Zehner

Go outside and get dirty. Get wet when it rains. Get chilled when it’s cold. Sweat. Walk places. Notice where the sun rises and sets. Remind yourself of your size and your place in the natural world. You don’t have to live in the country to do this; city people can also get outside and raise their eyes from the pavement to notice the sky – and the pigeons that fill it!

Make your own music. Draw a picture. Write someone a letter on real paper. Find entertainment and connection away from the computer. While access to the internet in some ways is a blessing, it distorts our understanding of genuine expertise. Someone who haunts online videos may feel he is an expert on music, but can he play three chords on a guitar? Even skillful photoshoppers will find that drawing the world from scratch takes skills they’ve never learned. And trying to use correct and legible handwriting without Spell Check will quickly bring to light what was never really mastered in elementary school. Most people are too quick to accept the pseudo-skill that computers give them, while schools work to increase self-esteem by artificial means.

Make your own music. Photo Andy Zehner

Throw stuff out. One of the most troubling symptoms of our cultural poverty is the proliferation of self-storage facilities. Where I live, even towns of 800 people have self-storage buildings. Buying and hoarding stuff does not create a living culture; rather it drags it down to its death. Think deeply and honestly about what you buy and use and why you buy it and use it. How many outfits can you wear? How many kitchen implements do you need? How much time do you spend dealing with things – dusting, taking out, putting in, organizing and reorganizing – instead of people? We have fallen into the belief that culture consists of the stuff we own and consume. If that were true, then it would make sense for sane people to try to own and consume different stuff from the crazy society, stuff that is distinctively sane. But culture is not stuff; it is the shared experience of order, stability, discipline, community, and hospitality provided by our families and our society as a whole.

Sleep when it gets dark and get up when it gets light. Try instituting an electricity-free day every now and again. I can’t help but notice the proliferating research that lighted screens – from phones, e-books, and computers – are beginning to damage sleep patterns, and that emotional illnesses such as anxiety and depression seem to be widespread. I can’t prove causation between the two, but it seems logical to assume correlation. And in improving your sleep and thereby your mental and physical health, you are also consuming fewer resources and producing fewer waste products.

Finally, remember the inner life that all human beings share. Connect, in your own tradition, with the reality of the inner life – in other words, pray, even when it doesn’t seem to be “doing anything.” Pray communally as well as personally. Pray while doing all the other things on the list.

Hmm. I had no intention of replicating the Benedictine lifestyle of ora et labora, or prayer and work, when I started typing the previous thoughts, but it seems to have happened – much of what I suggest is what Benedictines monks and nuns do as part of their daily disciplines.

There are many other aspects of integrity of life that occur to me – free time, personal appearance, holidays, rituals, social structures, and others. This is just a start, and a deceptive one to boot. A truly integrated life can’t be lived from a checklist like the one above. But still, we can find it helpful to begin there in examining why we live as we do – in examining the culture we have received and the one we want to pass down to others.

Right now I am reminding myself not to spend all day alone at the computer, to get outside even though it’s raining, to play a game with my family, to bag up some junk for Goodwill, and several times a day to throw the spit-caked tennis ball for the dog to fetch. I’ll go do that now.

“I’m waiting.” Photo Andy Zehner

Damaris Zehner

Damaris Zehner is an associate professor of English at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. She is the author of The Between Time, a collection of essays, and a contributor to blogs such as and She has lived and worked on four continents, equipping educators, translators, and gardeners with training and supplies. Her blog, Integrity of Life ( focuses on sane living in the present and in... Read more.

Tags: building personal resilience, culture, values