What is Integrity?

As I struggle with the darkness of our world, the uncertainty of the future, and the gross, volatile excesses of our leaders, I come to only one solution. It’s a small solution, no doubt, and it often feels insufficient. It may change nothing in our world, but it is the only thing I know to do: to live with integrity.

I may not be able to change the course of history, I may not be able to speak directly to the president, to CEO’s, to the selfish and the proud. I may not have an audience of millions, and I may never reach beyond my tiny sphere of influence. But I can strive to live with integrity, to work out – to lift a phrase from Saint Paul – my own salvation with fear and trembling.

But what is integrity? As I’ve meditated on this question, I find that it is surprisingly hard to answer in full. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Humility

This is a broad word – one I hear so often it becomes meaningless. It’s amorphous, conjuring sometimes warm, sometimes uncomfortable feelings. So what does humility mean?

The willingness to accept that we all have blind spots. An absolute faith in our capacity to see and understand all is a dangerous, deadly thing. Our brains make faulty judgments all the time, and it is natural to us to trust everything our brains say. That is a path of suffering, for ourselves and others. When I consider all the interpersonal problems in my life, I can identify the source of most of them as a blind faith in my own rightness.

The willingness to promptly admit when I am wrong. We often know we are wrong, but our need to appear on top keeps us fighting, posing, and defending our case. We are great lawyers for ourselves. It’s in our nature to dig in our heels and insist on our rightness, but it leads to brokenness. It leaves a trail of blood in it’s wake. It takes a great strength to admit one is wrong.

A willingness to admit I don’t know. We don’t have all the answers – even the wisest and truest among us. I’ve had many teachers in my life – in yoga, music, and spirituality. They passed skill and understanding on to me, but they taught me just as much in the moments they had the humility to say, “I don’t know.” When they uttered those words, their lessons went beyond music or yoga or theology, and extended into how to live, how to find peace. Accepting the reality that we don’t know is a path to peace.

Curiosity

How often do we respond with certainty, fear, or anger to things we don’t understand? How often do we feel outrage at the actions or words of others that we simply cannot comprehend? We respond to the mysterious in others by fortifying our fortress walls.

This is a primitive part of our brain speaking – the amygdala, which responds to threats to our worldview and threats to our physical safety as the same thing. When we hear something that doesn’t make sense, our amygdala tells us to watch out, to hunker down in the tall grass and fight for our lives. It causes cortisol to spike, and our fear and anger levels to rise.

This part of our brain, once so necessary for our survival (and often still is – it allows us to respond immediately to the car that swerves dangerously in front of us on the highway) shuts down the higher mind, the better angels of our nature. It shuts down humility, the gifts of the spirit, and a capacity to explore unknown ideas.

Curiosity, therefore, takes great practice. It takes conscious effort to cultivate curiosity about the unusual, mysterious, and different. I exercise this by asking myself questions: “What brought this person to this conclusion? Why do they believe this? Could this idea be true? What does that mean? What would the world look like if it is true? What does it mean that this person believes this way?” The longer I sit with these questions, the better. Understanding is never against our favor – it will always aide us in our arguments and goals.

It always strikes me as self defeating and myopic, the way so many people get angry at simply conversing with people they perceive as enemies. They might still be ideological enemies, but conversing with them and asking questions will aide me in the battle of ideas.

Holding to What We Believe to Be True

The final, crucial aspect of integrity is to accept what we do know, and to trust that that is enough. We might indeed be wrong, we might need to change our tune, but if we have put in our time and work, if we have done the best we can with the evidence that has been given to us, we can commit to what we believe without apology. Don’t cower, don’t apologize. If you have put in good work, stand by your assertions humbly. Admit you might be wrong, and admit that you, at present, can see the world in no other way. This is the path that makes the most sense to you, this is what where the evidence points you. Until someone offers something better – which they certainly may – stand by what you believe.

Emulate the words attributed to the Martin Luther, when he dared to defy the Catholic Church: “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

2 Comments

  1. Hello Stephen.

    You have clarity that is appealing. I’m heading towards 50 soon, and coming to the point where I knew, what I know, has been a long process. Not without doubt.

    University was a great experience, by the book. Sobriety has served me well, for the past 15 years. I’ve learned a great deal, but I remember that “I don’t know, but I am trying to find out” is something of a mantra to me these days. What was remarkable was that when I hit 40, and the years following, it was as if a door had opened in my mind, and I realized that I really did have clarity in certain areas of life. That took me by surprise really.

    I’ve spent the last decade of my life, writing down everything I think I know, based on life experiences. Blogs are good in that way. I suppose that there are more than forty years of life experiences in my head, and at 40, is when I realized all those lessons were there, and that I could write it all out with some clarity. I had all those years behind me, and with certain hindsight, that came, working in sobriety, memory and knowledge coalesced. I just knew that I KNEW things about life, in a way I had not been privy to up until that point in my life.

    Certain religious people begrudged my education as a Gay Christian, and two degrees later, I proved them all wrong. I had learned what I was taught about God, by the book. It was in the rooms, that I witnessed God in real time. And that was an education in itself, really. My knowledge of a Power Greater than myself is still ongoing.

    I talk to God, Often. And if He does not respond directly, then I know, that I still don’t know what it is I want/need to know, which means I have to sit with my friends, and listen to them. And in most cases, I learn what it is I am supposed to know. That is another way, I learn what I know, based on real time experiences.

    You know what you know, because of your own endeavors of study, recovery, tarot, spirituality, journaling, prayer, yoga, and even working in a checkout line. You get to see humanity in many venues on a weekly basis. Those areas are great for showing us what we really need to know, from people, we might not necessarily KNOW personally.

    I’ve said recently in one of my posts that, every human being who walks into a room, or I meet on the street, or work with one on one, is fuel. Every human being is someone I can lean something about them, and also learn something about me.

    I can safely say, I think, that I know, that I got here today, based on every human being I have known over the last 15 years and a few months. In that, I watched them, I listened to them, and I observed everything that they did, in the way of choices made or not. Good or Bad. Like in a cafeteria, I took what I liked, and left the rest, that I did not. The Rooms are great places to learn just what NOT to do. Because a good number of my similar sober friends are cracked in many ways, because of things they chose to do, and certainly in the things they chose NOT to do.

    Which bring us to gratitude for being present and being teachable, always knowing that I don’t know, but I am trying to find out, OK !

    Who I am is an amalgamation of every human being who has crossed my path over all these years. And little by slowly I write down my observations, and try to divine what those observations mean to me in my own life, and as part of my greater community.

    I don’t trust everything that I know, until I pass what I think I know by my best friend who pushes me to expand and listen to others, like you said in your post, that I might not agree with, on certain subjects, but I should sit with them and converse with them as I am able. Because my friend says that we cannot be lulled into a safe zone, (read: Echo Chamber) not knowing all sides of an argument to be able to speak or think with clarity. I am still working on that.

    I do know what I know, when I allow myself some grace and freedom to be wrong, when I am wrong, and to admit when I am wrong, and then find someone who can point me in the right direction. Right now, here in Montreal, those people are far and few between, so I am hanging close to my home groups and the friends I trust to carry me along for now. Because I trust what they know, because of our relationships with each other.

    I don’t know, but I am trying to find out, OK !

    Jeremy

  2. Thanks Stephen, yes it is important to be reminded that humility in our ever maddening world is being challenged and seen as a weakness when the electronic world pumps more and more information demanding our responses. Our capacity to process these decisions, often on the spot does leave us vulnerable to wonder was this the right decision.
    So to walk humbly with a partner in the presence of God is a great time to re-centre and make peace with our soul and to hold onto what we believe and know to be true.

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