Contrary to popular opinion, the arduous work of living in integrity has little or nothing to do with being moral. It’s not about right and wrong. It’s about who you are. It’s about growing up. It’s about leaving home enough times to know what are your personal values, rather than believing in something because you were told to. It’s about risking to know and to live your passions, uncertain whether others will find your choices to be honorable. After all that, it means learning to bear the tension that will inevitably befall you when your values and your heart’s desire are polarized, or when you are choosing between two conflicting values.
An old definition of the word integrity is “whole”. Integrity reflects living congruently and exercising an ongoing commitment to individuate, reclaiming our uniqueness from social influences. You are living in integrity when your actions reflect your values and/or your heart’s desire. However, integrity is more of a “how” than a “what”. The how of integrity is the resiliency to endure the tension when your longing and your desire don’t match up, or when you are facing a conflict with some value. It is also the struggle to forgive yourself when you either betray your longing or one of your values.
Integrity comes easy when there’s no split between your action and your values. However, the true ordeal of integrity comes when your heart’s desire calls you to act in a way that is incompatible with some cherished value of yours. The true substance of integrity may not be whether you choose in favor of a cherished value or honor your heart’s longing. But rather, to be mature enough to live creatively with such tension when they are polarized. In order to lean into the wholeness indicative of integrity, you need to be acquainted with your values and you passions. Integrity can’t happen when you don’t know your values or what you want.
Desire is the birthplace of your values. The more that desire comes from the beat of your own heart, the more you can trust that it is truly your passion. The combination of living from your desire with life to supporting and obstructing what you want, then your desires may begin to inform you about what really matters – your values. You have more information about how you want to live, how you want to treat others and be treated by them. When values are taken seriously and they mature, more is revealed about freedom, compassion, family life, love, work ethic and the meaning of your life. However, until you become acquainted with your personal longings, your values cannot be born.
Acquainted With Personal Longings
Being aware of desire and being committed to living your desire is the first step toward a life of integrity. “It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing”. (Oriah Mountain Dreamer) It may be that one of the most satisfying reviews of your lives would be to say, “I lived my love”, which would reflect living your heart’s desire. Typically, to get clear about your longing will eventually yield more awareness about your values. We will explore what it might mean to act in integrity if your behavior is congruent with what you want, with no awareness of some value consideration.
What you love or desire might not easily come to you, especially when you survived childhood by keeping your longings anonymous. You figured out on some deep level, that expressing desire runs the risk of being disruptive. Disruption can easily prompt parents to issue shame or ridicule and define you as insensitive, selfish or burdensome. It doesn’t take long to realize the tension that existed when you were aware of your desire and feared giving it a voice. The best way to make sure that some desire doesn’t unexpectedly find it’s way to the airwaves is to gradually have your desires be unknown even to yourself.
This pattern of “I have no idea about what I love or want” can continue to get reinforced by friends, partners and relatives. Such unawareness tends to give control of your life to others. When your desire is anonymous, someone else’s desire will likely begin to define your life. Significant others will have one of two reactions. They will either delight in all of the control that your confusion delivers to them, or they will feel quite alone. The aloneness happens because they are not being met by your desire, nor do they feel chosen as the person with whom your desire seeks satisfaction.
Allowing yourself to know your heart’s desire often needs to be a gradual process. Not knowing your desire was originally a survival mechanism aimed at preventing anyone from viewing you as disruptive and then abandoning you in some way. Keep it simple. Pause during the day; ask what you may want in that moment. Acceptable responses include: have a drink, sit, call a friend, eat, take a walk or even not knowing what you want. The key is to call desire to you, even if you can’t identify it. When you call it to you, you are rebuilding your relationship with it.
Desires and No Values
For reasons of either immaturity or arrested development, you can know what you want, but not be able to identify your values. I would not describe my 10-year-old grandson as either being in or out of integrity. He neither has enough life experience nor enough internal resources to construct his own values. For now, he sees his behavior as resulting in either a favorable or unfavorable response from authority figures and his peers. I encourage my grandson to know and live his desires as much as possible, for they will bring life to his values. I also support him learning how to cope with the inevitable frustration and disappointment resulting from unrealized desire.
It is the passionately personal nature of his desires that will eventually make his values his own. Passionate desire is typically the birthplace of values. It is through strong desire that we begin prioritizing some action. The bridge from desire to values is the willingness to make the cherished behavior not simply good for us, but to bring a devoted consideration of others. His deep emotional and instinctual responses to his life experience will yield values that will be the hallmark of his character. Genuine values cannot be borrowed. They must come from the heart, both the fullness and brokenness of heart.
From Desires To Values
The bridge from desire to values is the willingness to make the cherished behavior not simply good for us, but to bring a devoted consideration of others. This attitude of consideration I have called ethical engagement. When this attitude is active we wonder who will benefit from the action we value and whom might be hurt. Am I willing to make some appropriate sacrifice in order to support this valued action? Would I prescribe this action to others in similar circumstances?
Desires are where values germinate. How values actually mature remains somewhat of a mystery. Desires reflect personal tastes and preferences. We don’t typically make a big deal about someone’s desires if they do not impact someone in a way that evokes a values consideration. What we eat, hobbies we enjoy, where we vacation, clothes we enjoy wearing or plays and films we desire are all examples of desire, with likely no consideration about the role of values.
Certainly, early modeling and socialization provide an initial opportunity to witness the kinds of values that we may want to adapt. One of the key elements in the growth of a value seems to be both the desire to be your own person while also seeking to belong to others. It is not clear what maturing values would look like if you lived alone on a desert island. It appears that the need to support your uniqueness while connected to others has your desires morphing into values. The more serious we take our connection to ourselves and others, the more likely our lives will be guided by not only what we want for ourselves but also for the next generations. Our values become the ingredients that make up our moral positions.
In both Kohlberg’s and Gilligan’s models of moral development, the highest level of maturation is characterized by an investment in universalizing values. Universalizing a value means getting beyond yourself, to an investment in the welfare of others. To universalize a value means it is viewed as beneficial for all, such as the preservation of life. Gilligan suggests that empathy will play a major role in deciding how a particular value will be employed. Just because you empathically universalize a specific value doesn’t mean it won’t conflict with another of your values. For example, such a conflict may exist with the value of preservation of life and the value you place upon assisted suicide. Or the value you may place upon telling the truth and making an exception when to do so would create undue harm to yourself and others.
Knowing your values allows you to be at home with yourself. “The shortest and surest way to live with honor in the world is to be in reality with what we would appear to be. All human virtues increase and strengthen themselves by the practice and experience of them.” (Socrates) You likely will have a life direction you can trust. It allows for the development of rapport with others, since it gives them a clearer picture of who you are. That kind of clarity tends to promote trust. Even if others disapprove of what you do, they can trust that you will be who you say you are. Those who know you can take care of themselves accordingly. Also, your life’s purposes will likely become more illuminated. You have more internal guidance regarding making hard decisions and choices
The How and What of Integrity
The what of integrity happens when your behavior directly reflects your values and/or your heart’s desire. Actions that reflect your values and not your wants are commonly viewed as a more honorable act of integrity. This esteemed position happens for two reasons: 1) It is more likely you are acting in some self-sacrificial way when you prioritize your values rather than your longing, 2) Acting from your values will likely be considerate of the needs of others.
When you are aware of your values and your heart’s desire, it is no simple deed to act in honor of your longing and not your values. Through out history sacrificing some value in order to honor the heart’s longing to love has been a major theme in numerous love stories. Such a choice is often depicted as filled with internal turmoil and external consequences.
As we have seen, the prerequisite for any act of integrity is clarity about personal values and desires. Of course, acting with integrity possesses great ease when both values and desires are nicely compatible. The challenge of integrity occurs when they are polarized. An important way of understanding integrity is to say that betrayal of values or heart’s desire must be a possibility. When polarization is present and betrayal is not possible because your values are borrowed and/or your desire is not clear, then you are not capable of acting in integrity.
The How of Integrity
The how of integrity is the ability to hold a deep knowing about what it means to betray your values or your heart’s longing. Once you’re acquainted with your values and your desire, a deep loyal bond ensues. Then life happens. You discover that some situation will only allow you to live your devotion to your values or your desire. Coming to know how loyalty and betrayal live in your inner landscape brings you to the depths of soul, and the essence of integrity. I call such a knowing a sacred crisis of integrity.
Sacred Crisis of Integrity
Sometimes, living in integrity is easy. An example would be a woman wanting another child and holding the values position that abortion is unacceptable. She proceeds to have the child and is conveniently in integrity. Such acts of integrity are the easiest to employ, since there is no tension to have to cope with. There is neither a conflict between her desire and her values, nor between two conflicting values.
How wonderful it would be to step into integrity where your values, your heart’s desire and your action reflected a sublime wholeness. Eleanor, a 58 year-old client of mine, tells the story of bringing more heart to her values.
“I was 23 at the time and my sister who was mentally ill was pregnant. I have always believed that family needs to attend to their members. When the baby was born, I was filled with love for this little guy who belonged in our family. In some way he belonged to me as much as he did to my sister. As I held an image of handing him over to Foster Care vs. taking him home with us, my choice become more and more obvious. It was such a large commitment to consider. It felt so right and yet I couldn’t imagine what I was really getting myself in to. After some reflection and discussions with my husband, we adopted my nephew. He is now 28 years-old and a successful artist.” Eleanor’s heart infused her values with a decision that would expand over two decades.
However, the way of integrity is laced with betrayal. If you know your values and you know your heart’s desire, but they don’t match up, you are being asked to betray one or the other. Such a crisis seems to dwell at the core of the human condition.
As noted, the betrayal of desire and the honoring of some value is easily perceived as nobler. Since your values typically have some direct implication regarding how to treat others, values tend to receive more acclaim. When you choose your heart’s desire you are prioritizing yourself. The key is not to automatically decide that there is something wrong with making your desire your prime concern. I once heard it said, “The one who comes to us intending to disturb as little as possible by not expressing desire, neither deserves our admiration nor our respect”. The quote captures what it means to forsake your passions. It would suggest that you have decided not to be fully alive, an insult to the self and an insult to those who would be receptive to being impacted by your heart’s desire.
I recall making the decision to step away from my first marriage. It entailed betraying the values of supporting the sustainability of a family and parenting from an intact marriage. I deeply feared that I had not done enough to support the valued I placed upon the sustainability of a marriage. I especially felt regret and guilt in regard to my son’s intense allegiance to family life. At the time, I reluctantly agreed to attend a traditional stag party that was being planned for him, only if he agreed to attend the one I was designing. He agreed.
Eight of my male friends and I gathered on a friend’s farm where a permanent Sweat Lodge had been constructed. We began the evening in the Sweat Lodge where men tolerated increased heat from water being poured over hot rocks and offered warm blessings to my son’s destiny as a spouse. Following that ceremony, we assembled in the farmhouse to enjoy a meal prepared by the men. After the meal each man told a story of the joys and trials that characterized his commitment to a significant other. I waited as each man addressed my son with his story, noticing my son’s undistracted attention as he listened to each narrative. I imagined his soul was finding the words of these men completely digestible.
When the men were complete, I turned to Jason and said, “I’m aware of how much family life means to you. I want to make an amends to you regarding my choice to fracture our family”, wondering how my acknowledgement might impact him.
Jason took a larger than normal breathe and replied, “I do take family life very seriously and feel its loss. However, you have offered me a map showing me what it means not to remain too long somewhere I don’t belong.”
The male assembly quietly held the truth of my son’s declaration, as if the pause would enable each of us to find an inner place where his words might reside for awhile. Following that evening, I became more sensitive to the sacredness of experiencing a crisis of integrity. Such a watershed moment reflects the deepening of maturity. It can only happen when you have some real understanding and devotion to your values and what your heart’s desire is asking for. Without those realizations and devotion, there cannot be a crisis of integrity and no real capacity to act in integrity or understand it.
The predicament created by a crisis of integrity is also a crossroads where you are being asked to choose yourself in a more penetrating way. Either some value of yours or your heart’s desire will be betrayed. If you don’t know what it means to betray your yearnings in favor of some value, then you likely are trapped in some measure of a childish narcissism. If you don’t know what it means to betray some value in favor of your heart’s desire, then you are likely trapped in attempting to please others, determined not to disrupt.
A crisis of integrity can also occur when two values are in conflict and you are clear about the nature of those values. James, a 45-year-old accountant spoke to me about such a predicament. His wife was friendly with the woman with whom his best friend, Bruce, was dating. His wife asked him to keep confidential the information she was sharing with him. However, some of that information had to do with his friend Bruce being misled by the woman he was dating. James felt deeply torn by the value he placed upon maintaining confidentiality regarding what his wife had revealed and the value of offering his friend the best form of support he could.
“I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to violate my commitment to my wife and I did not want to withhold information from Bruce that might help him to strengthen how he took care of himself in his relationship. I found myself encouraging him to ask his girlfriend lots of questions, and to make sure it was the right relationship for him. All the time, knowing he was being strung along. I just hated my predicament,” explained James, as he shook his head from side to side, with his voice trailing off.
There’s a way in which your values and your heart’s longing deeply serve one another. The service doesn’t matter whether they are nicely compatible or polarized. Your passion makes your values your own. Even if your values reflect what’s commonly acceptable, the way your heart carries it will be particular to you. The enthusiasm and heartfelt devotion will be emblematic of your character. Your passion may cause a value to be transformed from an abstract precept to a life’s cause or act of service. Toxic legacies are often interrupted because your heart hungered to act in support of the next generation.
Values make an equally significant contribution to what you yearn for. Desire easily falls prey to what is immediate and satisfying. Values are the psychological scaffolding allowing you to have a larger vision. They prompt you to consider others and what will be sustainable. Values bring more meaning to your desire. Acting against your values can jolt you into feeling guilt, shame and remorse. These unfavorable reactions seem to operate as a guiding system, helping you to return to what is truly important for you.
Values can operate as the banks of the desire river. They can help guide the flow of your desire. If your values solidified with rigidity, dogmatism and self-righteousness, they can begin to damn the stream of your desire. Values no longer emanate from the heart, now they are fear driven. When fear replaces heart’s desire, values begin to barricade the flow of compassion, grace and mercy. Being right replaces being forgiving, being understanding, and being curious about how to hold a larger vision.
Do you know your own values or have you borrowed them in order to secure the approval of others? Can you risk being disruptive because the vigor of your passion can no longer be contained within the confines of your body? Can you withhold expressing disdain for the one who champions her or his desire? Can you remain devoted to both desire and value, knowing you will be asked to betray one in support of the other? Can you postpone personal gratification in favor of an empathic consideration of the welfare of others? Can you find some soft holding of self-forgiveness when you either banish your values or exile your heart’s desire? These are the wonderings of integrity.