As part of my Charity:Water campaign, I’m writing blog posts for people who contribute $25 or more to bring clean water to 23 people. You have a word/topic/question you want me to riff on? I’ll (probably) write it. This blog post is in response to a question from one donor, who wanted to know about my thoughts on integrity.
Interested in supporting – and getting your own blog post? You can still donate to the campaign (100% goes toward clean water, not fees). We’re less than $200 away from the goal!
First, what is integrity?
Most people don’t tend to think of buildings, but I do. Integrity is the same thing that holds buildings together*. It’s not really a set of moral behaviors – it’s a pre-moral condition of “holding together-ness”.
Another way of putting it: integrity is structural coherence among all the parts of yourself – from words to actions and thoughts. Integrity runs on all these dimensions:
- A person who thinks generosity is good and says generosity is good but does not act generously lacks integrity.
- A person who thinks generosity is unimportant but says that it is lacks integrity.
- A person who thinks generosity is good, says generosity is good, and acts generously has integrity.
Integrity is selfish
“. . .honesty is not a social duty, not a sacrifice for the sake of others, but the most profoundly selfish virtue man can practice.” – Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
If I can make you believe anything, it’s this. Integrity is not something you have because it is right, because some book or deity tells you to do it, or because your parents told you to do it.
Integrity is selfish – but not because it will get you a better job, make people like you, or whatever. Integrity is something you pursue because without it life is hell. Allow me to explain:
The opposite of integrity is disintegration
“How can I ever face my fellow man? How can I ever face myself again?” – Jean Valjean, Les Miserables
Back in the bad old days of high school, I lived about three and a half years of my life pretending to be a Christian. I had in fact become an atheist, the much-hated adversary/pariah of my entire evangelical cultural backdrop. And so in fear of being cast out, I decided to hide in a very long con (which I’m sure didn’t fool too many people after all).
I continued to pretend to be a Christian as I found myself hating everything about religion (things are different now – but that’s another blog post). I let fear rule me and gave up integrity in a core part of my soul. I sang along with the worship songs, bit my tongue when I should have spoken out, and put on a show when I should have been developing my true character and growing into mature adulthood.
Through the whole experience I became jaded and cynical. I became more contemptuous of the people around me (I was projecting a lot of my own self-contempt, I’m sure). I trained myself to be a conformist. I trained myself in helplessness and fear that stunted my growth in the areas of career and relationships and general self-confidence. I kept almost everyone at a distance and so lacked intimacy, because I was afraid of anyone ever finding out that I was truly something other than I pretended to be.
Because I didn’t have integrity, I experienced what disintegration was like. If I had continued on that path, I would have probably tried to keep that secret for a long, long time – if not forever. And I would have led a completely wasted life of bitterness and dashed hopes.
In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand describes well the true cost of a lie like this one and the true selfish value of honesty and integrity:
“Honesty is the recognition of the fact that the unreal is unreal and can have no value, that neither love nor fame nor cash is a value if obtained by fraud—that an attempt to gain a value by deceiving the mind of others is an act of raising your victims to a position higher than reality, where you become a pawn of their blindness, a slave of their non-thinking and their evasions, while their intelligence, their rationality, their perceptiveness become the enemies you have to dread and flee—that you do not care to live as a dependent, least of all a dependent on the stupidity of others, or as a fool whose source of values is the fools he succeeds in fooling—that honesty is not a social duty, not a sacrifice for the sake of others, but the most profoundly selfish virtue man can practice: his refusal to sacrifice the reality of his own existence to the deluded consciousness of others.”
It doesn’t take much to motivate me to seek integration, because I dread more than anything else going back to the deadness of soul I felt when I was untrue to myself.
But disintegration is not the full story.
Integration brings life
When I finally told the truth about being an atheist, I (ironically) found that integration to be the one of the most spiritual experiences of my life up until that point. All of a sudden, Reality was on my side and I was on Reality’s side.
And with that, it was like my life started over. Just about everything good that has happened to me in the 4+ years since – moving to a new city, becoming a brave and independent person, embarking on a great career, learning, making amazing friends, falling in love with life, finding my place as a writer, reconciling with my family and community, and coming around to a spirituality (hopefully) without darkness or contradiction – has happened because I took that first step to integrate.
Integrity is *the* value that makes all other of life’s values possible. And it’s the one thing you hold on to before all else – because in the end it is all you have and all you can control. It is your lifeline to joy and life. It is your connection to yourself. It is your connection to Reality/God. And it is your connection to your fellow man.
Integration is a never-ending process
And the process of integration is never done. I’m still finding relationships that I haven’t fully integrated. I still find areas of my life where I haven’t brought myself fully in. I’m still making up for past lies and past omissions of truth. I still have places I refuse to look at – and Reality is going to have to smack me around before I will.
But I do know that good things happen when I move toward greater integration. I do find myself getting stronger and more courageous. And I do know that I am *not* going back.
Integrity does not think about itself
In its best form, integrity is invisible. Nobody has to look at a good building and say “wow, what a structurally sound building.” Neither does a building need someone to flatter it for being so not-falling-down-ish.
We should all should hope to live in a state of integrity without needing to notice it.
We should also take care that a reputation for integrity doesn’t become an obstacle to integrity itself. We have to be willing to sacrifice a reputation for integrity in order to keep integrity itself.
Your integrity gives integrity to Being
Borrowing from Jordan Peterson here: your own integrity is significant to the cosmos, because your actions are not isolated.
Every action you take toward greater self-integration/integrity is an act that pulls the world and everyone and everything in it toward greater integration. Your integrity will create trust, which allows for love, which generates creativity, which generates all good things.
On the other hand, every action you take to deceive creates greater untruth and greater distrust, which make relationships and long-term planning even harder. This kills creativity and creates cycles of conflict and destruction.
It helps me to remember that almost all of the good things that have ever come to me – wealth, education, love, trust, positive role models, etc – have all been because I was born into a line of people who sought integrity. My gratitude to them makes me want to pay it forward for the other beings (not just my descendants) who will come to be.
Wouldn’t you rather live a life that puts the world together instead of taking it apart?
Integrity is powerful
In a world where few people have integrity, integrity is a sacred thing where found. And in a world where nothing is sacred, true sacredness is the most powerful force in the world.
An undivided person can do many times more damage to evil and work for good than a divided person. A person who has nothing to hide is largely immune to the worst weapons of manipulation. A person of integrity has allies she can trust, allies who trust her, a word that means something, and an iron will (forged from all the work of integration).
Most importantly, the person of integrity (again) stands on the side of Reality. And Reality always wins.
*(H/T to Ayn Rand for illustrating this brilliantly in The Fountainhead)
Intellectual Influences: Two of my greatest influences when it comes to thinking about truth and integrity have been Jordan Peterson (see the Maps of Meaning lecture series or 12 Rules for Life) and Ayn Rand (see Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead). Much credit to them for most of the ideas in this post, which have come to be mine as well through experience.