“Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” ~Mark Twain
What do we mean when we speak of integrity? Webster’s defines it in three related ways: completeness, soundness, and incorruptibility in a moral sense. Thus the meaning today is essentially unchanged from its Latin root, integer, meaning “whole.” Something which is whole is not only complete, with no missing parts, but it is sound, with all parts working together as they should and none broken or damaged or otherwise corrupted.
So what do we mean when using the word “Integrity” to describe a spiritual principle to live by? One way to express it is that “Integrity means saying what we mean and meaning what we say.” This means not only what we say to others, but also what we say to ourselves about who we are and what we think and believe.
So how do we know that we mean what we say?
By what we do.
Ancient wisdom says that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” When we live with integrity, our internal house is not divided. We don’t say one thing but do something else. We aren’t at war with ourselves over beliefs and actions that don’t match up with our values. When we live with integrity, everything we believe and say and do reflects the same values and works toward the same purpose. Thus, spiritual integrity is no different from the physical principle of integrity in the structure of a bridge.
When all the components of a bridge work together, then the bridge is sound and functions as intended. But if the bridge is poorly designed so that the trusses don’t support the deck, or if its footings aren’t firmly anchored, or if the parts are made from cheap pot metal instead of structural steel, then the bridge will fail. It will be a dangerous mess instead of something that can be trusted to fulfill its function and carry traffic safely.
Likewise without integrity in our lives, we cannot serve a good purpose, whether in our work, our families, or in our own spiritual growth and wellness. If we cut corners, cheat, lie or otherwise deceive ourselves and others, or compromise our most fundamental values, then we will sabotage our best efforts. If we lack personal integrity even our hardest-won achievements will fail to stand up, will fail to bring us the satisfaction and pride we sought, and will leave us with a bitter taste in our mouths and our souls steeped in regret.
If we look at the lives of people in the public eye – business leaders, entertainers, scholars, and especially politicians – we see this lesson repeated over and over again. Good ends are never served by foul means.
Integrity means having the courage to seek the truth . . . especially the truth about ourselves! It means that we act consistent with what we know to be true, instead of trying to take an easier, softer way – a shortcut that tempts us with rewards we haven’t earned and don’t deserve. Integrity means that we don’t expect from others what we’re not willing to give of ourselves. It means that our insides match our outsides – that the person we show the world is who we really are. We’re not phony, intentionally or not. And integrity means that we make every effort ensure that our actions really serve our values and the purpose we intend them to achieve.
There’s an old saying to the effect that “integrity means always doing the right thing, even when nobody’s watching.” We should add that living with integrity means knowing that we’re somebody, not nobody, and we are always watching.
Finally, when our lives are guided by the principle of integrity, we never have trouble looking ourselves or anyone else in the eye . . . and if we ever have trouble getting to sleep at night, it’s probably due to too much coffee and not a troubled conscience!
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Links to more information about Integrity:
Nancy Lee Evans, “Spiritual Integrity.”
“Spiritual Integrity” by Virgil Davis.
A retired policeman’s reminiscence about the lessons in integrity learned from his family.
“Character and Spiritual Integrity,” from TeoSofia.com.
In contemporary psychology, the term “authenticity” is used to describe what we mean by personal integrity in a deeper sense than just honoring your commitments and not telling overt lies. Those interested in deeper exploration might begin with Kernis and Goldman’s article, “The Role of Authenticity in Healthy Psychological Functioning and Subjective Well-Being,” reprinted from the Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association.
Books about Integrity:
Henry Cloud, Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality
Written as a guide to the sort of character and practices that make for success in business, Dr. Cloud’s book is a manual that describes the practical value of personal integrity.
Stephen L. Carter, Integrity
Yale law professor Carter writes about the practice of personal integrity in the public sphere, and the implications of our nation’s drift away from the Christian roots of our traditional virtues.
Barbara Killinger, Integrity: Doing the Right Thing for the Right Reason
Psychiatrist Killinger explores the cultural and family influences that shape our personal integrity and discusses practical ways to develop and maintain it.