Some Insight Into Integrity

06/02/2015 11:25 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

Describing someone as having integrity typically suggests that person exemplifies a life of decency and righteousness. The emotional component to our descriptions of someone as upright might simply be that we approve of that person's actions. It may be helpful to deepen our understanding of integrity beyond a declaration of what we find acceptable. Starting with an examination of the word itself may be helpful.

Meaning of the Word

An old meaning of the word "integrity" is "wholeness" not "wholesomeness." "Integrity" also spins off the word "integrate." We can say that when we act with integrity we are whole, our values are integrated into our behavior. Our actions reflect our values. Therefore, a prerequisite to acting with integrity is knowing what we actually value.


Our values are the principles or standards by which we give meaning and direction to our lives. They carry more emotional weight then our varied preferences for the music we appreciate, food we eat, the car we drive or the clothes we wear. Hence, we typically create some reasoning or ethic to support our values. We may adhere to reasons such as, "Do unto others as you would have them do to you" or to, "If a certain action serves you, then you should be willing to have others engage in the same behavior, not making an exception of yourself." Values communicate what we cherish and love. They reflect choices we want to protect and preserve. Our values give meaning to our lives. They provide us with a strong sense of identity. We are either for or against abortion, for or against capital punishment, for or against protecting the natural environment.

We act with integrity when our values are reflected in our actions. If are value is to support a racially diverse neighborhood, then we are acting with integrity when we offer a welcome to an ethically diverse family. We are not acting with integrity if we report favoring an ethnically diverse neighborhood, but refuse to offer a sincere welcome to a diverse family who moves next door. When we are not acting with integrity, we are likely in a crisis of integrity.

Crisis of Integrity

Such a crisis tends to occur in three distinct ways:

*The first way is that some action is called for and we simply do not know what values are relevant to the situation. A colleague of mine was recently asked to participate in an assisted suicide. She struggled for weeks, feeling overwhelmed by the decision and unclear about her values. She remained in a crisis of integrity until she identified what she valued which guided her decision not to participate in the assisted suicide.

*The second form of a crisis of identity happens when strong emotions call us in opposing directions. In 1517, Martin Luther nails 95 grievances to a chapel door in Wittenberg, Germany. This Catholic priest finds himself in a crisis of integrity as he holds his beloved Church responsible for moral infractions. Martin Luther found himself torn between loyalties to his Church and honoring his own vision of what was right. Integrity can fall prey to a crisis of two loves.

*The third crisis of integrity happens when we are deciding whether to speak or act in support of our values, which are incompatible with those, held by friends and family. A heterosexual man objects to jokes loaded with gay bashing during a card game. If he speaks out, he runs the risk of being the recipient of his friend's taunting and contempt. If he remains silent, he betrays himself.

Although challenging, each of the three forms of crisis offers an opportunity to clarify values and to act with integrity. The greater threat occurs in a tragedy of integrity when we are not capable of even experiencing a crisis of integrity.

Tragedy of Integrity

A crisis of integrity is not simply unfortunate. It offers an opportunity to clarify our values and act in accord with them if we wish. We do not suggest that children are capable of acting with or without integrity. We do not view children as capable of generating enough reflection, discernment and conscience, enabling them to create their own values. We expect children to be compliant, adaptive and obedient, but not responsible for formulating their own values. Michael Meade, a contemporary Mythologist, does not see the obedient orientation to values as limited to children.
"The problem is that modern cultures try to produce obedient citizens and life-long consumers instead of people who know the meaning and purpose of their own lives."

The real tragedy in the realm of values and integrity happens when adults continue to live compliantly with the prevailing regulations and expectations they encounter in their neighborhoods, at work and in the religions they practice. They cannot make choices from their personal values. When that happens, being adaptive has replaced living in accord with their heart's longing and acting with integrity. There are several important consequences to this tragedy.

*There is a propensity to shame the heart's longing so it will likely not disrupt the adaptive pattern.

*There is often a cynicism and bitterness due to the betrayal of personal passion and the values that would ensue.

*There is a resistance to forgive those who are in a crisis of integrity, especially, when some competing love was the cause of the crisis.

*There is proclivity to self-righteousness as a compensation for the denial and inhibition of what is loved and the negativity accompanying such inhibition.