Why Integrity Is So Vital to Our Fulfillment in Life

If we aren't fully satisfied with the life we are leading, maybe it's because our mind is not in sync with this deeper part of ourselves, and we are not on the path to achieve the needed integrity to make us whole.
04/17/2014 10:24 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2014

Of all the character qualities we may seek to develop, integrity is by far the most difficult one to achieve. To achieve integrity, we know we have to change in ways we are often not ready to or motivated to change.

This is tragic, because it is essentially being penny wise and pound foolish. By hanging on to the gratifications in life, combined with our fear of change, we keep ourselves ignorant of the profound riches the achievement of integrity would bring to our life.

Integrity is defined by three points:

1. "adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character;

This is how most of us understand integrity. We admire those who adhere to moral and ethical principles; we know they have sound character, and we look up to them. But generally, admiration is not a strong enough motivation for us to follow in their footsteps.

However, all of us would be highly motivated if we fully grasped the other two definitions of integrity:

2. "the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished: to preserve the integrity of the empire."

3. "a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition: the integrity of a ship's hull."

Apply those definitions to ourselves. Think of how many of our problems in life stem from our feeling not whole or undiminished, or from not being in a sound and unimpaired state.

Consider how dependent we are on the opinion of others, how we might stew over a cutting remark or from some deep embarrassment or failure.

When we have difficult or unresolved conflicts with others, in our careers or even within ourselves, the probable cause is that we have yet to achieve an integrity that makes us feel whole and unimpaired. And how many of us feel a sense of incompleteness or vulnerability -- a lack of confidence? Again, we lack this integrity.

In such cases, it is like trying to move ahead in life without finishing some vital work on and within ourselves -- like building the ship as we are trying to sail it.

Think why the dictionary offers us four synonyms for integrity: rectitude, probity, virtue, honor but only one glaring antonym: dishonesty. In other words, if we lack integrity, we are being dishonest -- at least to ourselves.

So for us to be really honest, true integrity requires us to integrate our entire being -- mind, heart, body and soul.

This means we must integrate our minds that we control with egos that control us, with our emotions that control our egos, with our unconscious -- which in addition to such powers as our intuition and insight, represents our spirit, conscience and soul.

Sigmund Freud said our most important decisions in life -- like choosing a mate or a profession -- should come from our unconscious. So, if we aren't fully satisfied with the life we are leading, maybe it's because our mind is not in sync with this deeper part of ourselves, and we are not on the path to achieve the needed integrity to make us whole.

Five years ago, I learned about an episode when my son chose that path. He was a freshman at Bowdoin, failing chemistry. His roommate had to take the chemistry exam a day early, and he left a copy of the exam on Malcolm's desk with a note, "Merry Xmas, Mal!"

While knowing the questions would have greatly helped him prepare for the exam, Malcolm threw it away. As he more recently explained, he was not going to allow Bowdoin and grades to have a higher priority in his life than how he felt about himself -- certainly a critical step in becoming whole and undiminished. Keeping this episode to himself until his 50s reaffirms how important it was to him to personally integrate his deepest feelings with his mind and his ego -- an expression of conscience.

Not surprisingly, I think it is fair to say today he is considered a man of integrity. What impresses me, beyond being a great father and educator, is his zest for life; he has avid interests: music, athletics, travel and reading.

Perhaps that's the great strength of integrity -- it directs us to search and build our lives on our deeper and truest selves.