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On Integrity

When I was much younger I thought about integrity as a moral virtue. It meant doing the right thing when no one was looking. It was a constant reminder of the need to make sure I was behaving rightly; being a good person no matter what. It was a word that felt out of my league.

In my most authentic moments, I couldn't be confident that I had true integrity.

But my understanding of integrity has changed over time. I understand it now to be more about being integrated within oneself; being whole as opposed to being compartmentalized.

It's undeniable that different people bring out different qualities in us. We can only experience things in contrast to other things. Likewise, we experience ourselves in contrast to others. We experience inspiration, provocation, giddiness or boredom by interacting with certain individuals. My favorite reminder of this comes from the writing of CS Lewis.

Lewis was part of a close-knit group of literary friends. Though an unofficial private society, it was established enough to have a name, The Inklings. One of the members, a dear friend of Lewis', Charles Williams, died unexpectedly leaving the others in shock and grief. Writing to a friend shortly after, Lewis observed that it wasn't just one member of their group who had vanished, but in addition, they'd all lost something of one another now that Williams was no longer present to inspire or illuminate particular qualities or characteristics in each of his friends.

"It then became clear that some principle of liveliness and cohesion ... had been withdrawn from the whole party: lacking him, we did not completely possess one another."

C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Esemplastic FriendshipPaul E. Michelson, Huntington University

I'm diverging from my original point slightly, but I think it's important to reflect on the idea that many people associate integrity with being the same person whether in public or private. But no matter how authentic we are, it's inevitable that different people draw out different qualities in us. Only the blandest of personalities would be the same in any setting.

I do believe integrity results in the same moral choices regardless of the audience, but I don't think it is because of "good morals" per se. I think it has more to do with what I mentioned above, being internally integrated versus being compartmentalized.

Imagine throwing a giant dinner party and inviting your extended family, your work colleagues, your college roommates, your book club, your child's school PTA, your HOA board or your landlord, your minister, and your favorite bartender from the local. Apart from the planning and prep for such a large gathering, does the thought of that crowd make you anxious? In my experience, it would be an unsettling idea for most people.

Ethical guidelines prevent most mental health professionals from interacting with patients outside of professional settings. But if they could, can you imagine the stress most would feel if their therapist suddenly entered their personal life, rather than just providing objective assistance to it?

We like to keep things separate. We like people from one area of our lives to stay in that space. And others from other areas to stay in theirs.

But even more important than people, are the issues we wrestle with. We want to be seen and known for the brilliant business minds we possess, but not the needy, addictive personalities we reveal in late-night texts. We want to be seen as a helpful class parent, not a high-functioning alcoholic. We want to be the clear-headed leader, not the wounded inner child. We want to be known for the physique we've molded in hours upon hours at the gym, not the borderline hoarder that our home reveals. We're willing to suppress or disown parts of ourselves, in order to promote the aspects we want to display.

We slice, can, and store away aspects of our own essence. When we amplify one area to make up for the unacknowledged void of others, we dehumanize ourselves. This is far different than the natural ebb and flow of a personality in a sea of interactions. It's a modern obsession with being “on brand”; crafting and signaling messages in our actions and exhibitions.

Integrity is less of a moral aim, than it is a human one. It is the pursuit of inclusion within, accepting the entire universe of sparkle and filth, shine and shame that inhabits each one of us. Becoming intimate with all of it is the only way to integrate, to become fully human.

Those who campaign on a promise of integrity are likely the least reliable to have it. We associate integrity with squeaky cleanness, absolute upstanding. But to truly have integrity, we have to get dirty, not clean. We have to dig down into the underbelly of our psyche and get freaky with our shadow. That's the only way to bring it into the light. Integrity isn't something you can wear as a badge, its creation destroys any pretenses a badge could display.

When we compartmentalize our inner world, difficult choices provoke different responses from different quadrants of our soul. Think of the cartoon angel on one shoulder and demon on the other. The push and pull of competing interests within can only come where there is separation from different parts of us.

When we pursue wholeness within, we are freed from the distractions and distortions of a warring inner world. We lead with our light without hiding our shadow. We stand in solidarity with both the captive and the conqueror, because we have been both.

Moral choices made from an integrated personality are not moral choices, they're inevitable responses. Integrity is not an achievement of strong character, it is the metabolism of weakness and strength producing unity.