Some Insight Into Integrity

By Constance Jones | June 29, 2015

Some Insight Into Integrity

Some Insight Into Integrity

Some Insight Into Integrity

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 we value supporting 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. However, she was able to realize that not only might situations in involving folks desiring assisted suicide change in the future, but also her life experience might influences a change in her values.

*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 runs the risk of betraying himself and being out of integrity.

Although challenging, each of the three forms of crisis offers an opportunity to clarify values and to act with integrity. The crisis can be extremely beneficial when it generates several important questions: What is this crisis of integrity asking for? What must be risked or sacrificed in order to move back into integrity? What deserves respect is the awareness that we are in a crisis of integrity and the earnest desire to authentically address it. If we are fully alive, striving to honor our heart’s longing and live by values we cherish, then we will periodically move into a crisis of 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. A tragedy of integrity literally prevents us from considering whether we are in or out of integrity. There are two faces of a tragedy of integrity. The first happens when our attention is consumed by what we perceive to be the expectations and approval of others, leaving us extremely accommodating. The second occurs when we are excessively indulgent about our own desires and the will to manifest them, leaving us insensitive to the needs of others.

The first face of the tragedy reflects an interruption in adult development. 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.”

This first face of the tragedy 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 is no internal crisis. There is only the worry that personal choices may not be compatible with the expectations others have of us. 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. It becomes easy to feel like a victim of life, since choices are no longer guided by what is cherished.

*There is a resistance to forgive those who are in a crisis of integrity. Forgiveness is replaced by condemnation for those daring to live what they love.

*There is proclivity to self-righteousness as a compensation for not living what is loved.

The second face of the tragedy of integrity happens as we experience the ends justifying the means. We want what we want and lose sight of its impact upon others, leaving us temporarily feeling good about our accomplishment and ourselves. T.S. Elliot suggested,“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to harm, but the harm that they cause does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because the are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.”

When “absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves” the ability to raise questions pertinent to integrity is sacrificed. Some of these questions include: Will my actions generate undue suffering for someone or some group? Will I rupture my rapport with someone by engaging in my intended behavior? Am I losing insight of a larger consideration by moving strongly toward some immediate desire? Would it serve me to see how exercising some measure of compassion might benefit my cause?

Addressing a Tragedy of Integrity

Becoming capable of being in or out of integrity is an arduous task, but not impossible. Both faces of the tragedy happen because there is no experience of a satisfactory sense of self. The first face of the tragedy responds to this predicament by deferring to others, letting themselves be guided by the values of others.

In order to heal this face of the tragedy it will be important to experience several learnings:

*Learning to trust what is felt and identify what is cherished and valued.

*Growing enough resiliency to protect what is cherished when others criticize it.

*Trusting that when we fall out of integrity we will do what is needed to get right with ourselves.

*Learning to trust that we will forgive ourselves when being out of integrity has an unfavorable impact upon others.

The second face of the tragedy also results from a diminished sense of self. But rather than acquiesce to others, there is an inflation of the self, characterized by self-righteousness and attempts at domination. The quest for an acceptable self is mitigated by self-loathing. The healing of this second face of the tragedy happens when guided by several important learnings.

*Learning to let go of a need to be right and to dominate. Feeling safe when personal values are uncertain and ambiguous and holding the faith more will be revealed.

*Learning to trust that a viable support system can be created when feelings of vulnerability surface.

*Learning to trust we can navigate sensitively what is in our best interest as well as in the best interest of others.

*Learning to feel empathy and remorse for some unfavorable impact our choices may have upon others.


Rather than being a reflection of moral fortitude, it has been suggested that integrity be characterized as the integration of our values with our actions, with one mirroring the other. We reviewed three ways a crisis of integrity can happen: 1) A situation calls for some action and we are unclear about the values we want to guide our behavior, 2) Strong emotions call us to opposing values, leaving us uncertain as how to act, 3) Involves a situation where we know our values, but to act or speak in support of them would illicit unfavorable social reactions. Although each crisis can be challenging, they do offer the opportunity to clarify our values and the action best suited to reflect those values.

We explored two tragedies of integrity. The first happens as we decide it is too dangerous to live by what we cherish. So we act in compliance with external norms and expectations, unable to have our behavior what we truly value. This tragedy attempts to avoid the experience of being out of integrity by eliminating what we cherish, only considering others. The second tragedy of integrity attempts to avoid the tension accompanying as crisis of integrity by eliminating others. The result is an inadequate level of empathy for how our actions impact others. Healing begins by acknowledging that a crisis of integrity reflects real life and a level of emotional maturity. Trusting what is cherished, and trusting we can remain in consideration of what is in our best interest as well as in the interest of others further healing.

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