by Ariale M. Huff
Integrity has become an issue for me due to two experiences. First, a world-famous psychic shook my hand as we met and told me I had too much integrity; that this impeded my success in life. The second experience was when a co-leader of workshops confided in me that he felt people who had very little integrity broke promises to return to a follow-up session.
Since these two experiences, I have explored the issue of integrity a great deal in my own mind and also with students in my writing classes.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines integrity as: "Steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code. 2. The state of being unimpaired, soundness. 3. The quality or condition of being whole or undivided, completeness."
If the first definition is to be considered, a person who adheres steadfastly to any moral or ethical code has integrity, in other words, a "no honor among thieves" kind of thing. By this part of the definition, a pathological liar, dissidents who kill for their cause, and satanic groups could all have integrity.
Machiavelli believed that the goal justified the means to reach it. According to this first definition, he would have integrity. So would Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli's idea of the perfect leader. (Yes, that is Borgia as in "assassinated his brother" and "related to Lucretia, the famous poisoner." They might have had integrity, but they weren't nice.)
So far, integrity sounds a little like "locked into any belief system with no way out." It sounds like remaining consistent with no particular concern about what it is one is consistent to.
The second and third definitions offer a little more to go on. Perhaps they were intended to refer more to objects than to people, but to go more deeply into the word's implications, it's necessary to explore these as well.
To me, being whole, complete, and sound mean to be centered and balanced. A centered and balanced person acts from the same set or code of ethics consistently. I think many people sample around among moral and ethical codes because they are spiritually or emotionally seeking something they have not yet found. Although this would define seekers as not centered and balanced, there is no insult or derogatory connotation to that definition.
Interestingly, none of the definitions of integrity I find suggest that having integrity makes a person desirable in relation to other people, unless the other people share the same exact set of beliefs. Hmmm, maybe that's why we have come to imbue this word with meanings it doesn't exactly have like "honorable," "honest," "noble," etc. You and I believe alike; therefore, you have integrity. Now, this other person who believes differently (but consistently) has integrity to his friends too, and we all believe there is nobility in this consistency.
This reminds me of the timeworn scene of two adversaries locked into combat who suddenly recognize the opponent as a worthy person in spite of polarities. This is an old chestnut in terms of TV and movie scripts, but isn't it an enlightening exercise to consider that those who hold views diametrically opposed to our own may be exhibiting integrity?
The issue of integrity intrigues and perplexes me. When does integrity cross the line into an excessive need to please others? When does it cross into cruelly telling the truth at any expense? When does it become a scourge for the punishment and judgment of ourselves or others? When is it an excuse for not analyzing our belief systems?
The interpretation of integrity so often seems to carry with it either a self-righteous attitude or a guilt-ridden one. I have noticed that it frequently becomes an excuse for either misanthropy or self-loathing. When people speak of integrity, the lack of it in others seems near the surface or an unrealistic fear of being found lacking.
I think the greatest learning coming out of this analysis for me is about expectations and judgments. Each of us has a concept of integrity tightly bound to our expectations and judgments of ourselves and others. In all cases, these expectations are doomed to not be fulfilled perfectly and judgments, as always, lead us away from real awareness.
I have come to the conclusion that I'm not sure I want integrity for myself or for others with whom I deal. Perhaps the semantics of the word are at fault, but I want to be capable of changing my ethics and morals based on new information and situations. I respect others who have this kind of flexibility, too.
I will include here the ruminations on integrity by three students. Their answers are not exactly like mine or similar to each other's.
1 think it's not easy being a woman and having integrity. I believe integrity is honesty. In situations where I need to stand up for myself, I use sound facts to get my point across. For the most part, I find this the best solution. However, even when I am righteous, honest, and intelligent, some men seem to stand back, take a look at my completeness, and then become jealous. They seem to feel inferior and react by becoming angry and resentful. As I see this, I try to show them the spiritual part of me that can make both of us whole. I try to use integrity with wisdom and grace because I care so much about all people.
When I think of integrity, a specific incident comes to mind. A former husband and I had gone out for pizza with another couple. When we went to pay the bill, I noticed we had not been charged for the second pizza. Just as I began to tell the clerk, my husband kicked me in the leg to shut me up. It worked.
I'm ashamed to say that I have been on both sides of the fence since then. Sometimes I have kept silent when charged too little and dealt with the guilt that quickly followed, and sometimes I have spoken up. By far, the feelings coming from being honest are much more enjoyable. But I have found that the toughest integrity for me is when God and I are the only witnesses.
Like many today, I have been following a path whose aim is deep happiness and peace. I've learned many lessons along the way. The most recent of these has been about the issue of integrity. I've become stuck at this point with the recognition that true inner peace requires honesty in the most authentic sense: facing of truth at all levels of self
As a child, I was taught to gauge truth and honesty through externals: parents, institutions, God. Inner truth was subjugated, patronized, and denied. In the process of my own spiritual growth, I have had to come to terms with the truth inside of me. My inner truth follows none of the rules I was taught, but it has been with me from childhood, making me squirm in my seat at church and keeping me yearning for meaning that resonates with my soul.
My integrity has pulled me out of the Christian church and all of its dogma and interpretations of God and faith, and it has deepened and widened my own spiritual path. For example, where once my idea of love was very conditional and included prescribed avenues for punishment, I now have a sense of an all-pervading love, where the idea of forgiveness is almost a non-issue.
When I liken to my integrity, it pulls me toward certain people and situations that ultimately draw me farther along on my journey. It's quiet and subtle, but living with integrity holds immeasurable power.
Ariale M. Huff has been a syndicated and national columnist/writer since 1979, editor for eight publications since 1980 (including current editorship of Writers' Wings), and writing instructor since 1982. Her workshops are offered through SCC, EdCC, BCC, NSCC, Everett CC, the King/Sno-Isle Library systems, PNWC, Write On the Sound, bookstores, women's centers, and writing groups.