Have you received your $300 check from the federal government yet? If you got it, did it make you feel any better?

It seems as if everyone is anxious about the economy. Consumer confidence is low. The dollar is in a skid. Gas costs more than $4 a gallon. Some pollsters say the economy has replaced the war in Iraq as the number one concern on voters’ minds.

What I would like to question is the assumption that making the economy better will make us happier, or feel more secure. Here’s a little story that explains my doubts.

There once were two courtiers whom the king asked to do something that both agreed was unethical and cruel. The courtier who obeyed the king was promoted and rewarded financially. The one who refused to obey was expelled from the palace and reduced to living in a hovel with a dirt floor and surviving on a diet of rice and water.

One day the courtier who had retained the king’s favor decided to visit his former colleague. After entering the hovel, he looked around, turned up his nose and sniffed, “If you had learned to obey the king, you wouldn’t have to sleep on a dirt floor and live on rice and water.” To which the poor man replied, “If you had learned to sleep on a dirt floor and be satisfied with meals of rice and water, you wouldn’t have to obey the king.”

This isn’t meant to be a rant against wealth. I think it was Sophie Tucker who said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.” All other things equal, the disobedient courtier would have preferred living in the royal palace to living in poverty … but not at the expense of his integrity.

I’ve heard a witness to this truth from several of the entrepreneurs on Madison Street. From the looks of it, you might think that most of them are getting rich. The fact is many of them were making a lot more money in the days when they worked in corporate America. The reason they ventured out on their own is that they grew tired of obeying the king. Most are working longer hours and earning less in return.

I like being around a lot of the business owners on Madison Street because, in my opinion, a lot of them have integrity. They work hard at making their bottom lines come out in the black – but their souls aren’t for sale. Too, many are not afraid to admit a degree of vulnerability, of needing each other to make a living and to have a meaningful life.

Here’s what I want from Mayor Anthony Calderone and District 91 Superintendent Lou Cavallo in Forest Park; from Madigan, Jones and Blagojevich in Springfield; and from Obama and McCain as they race toward the White House. I want them to be smart in making policies and proposing strategies that will improve the economy.

But more importantly, I want them to be wise. I want them to be able to use their bully pulpits to remind us of who our better angels really are. Arguably, Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t bring this country out of the Depression. World War II did. What FDR did was to inspire people to make short term sacrifices in the belief that the whole nation would benefit.

What I’m looking for in leadership – even more than competence – is integrity. I want leaders who are competent to fix what is fixable, and to remind us that for all the rest all we have to fear is fear itself.

Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.