What Integrity Is Not

True purity seems tarnished,
true steadfastness seems changeable.

—The Tao Te Ching, ch. 41

Integrity is counterintuitive. Many things we consider part of integrity - consistency, purity, discipline - can be red herrings, leading us away from true integrity and into personal or societal dis-integration. By contrasting my gut-reaction ideas about integrity with the rest of my ideas about holistically living well, I've discovered a number of easy - and dangerous - misconceptions. True integrity, a do-unto-others integrity, differs greatly from the judgmental definition used to call out hypocrites.

  1. Integrity is not unison; it's harmony. The mind is not a monolithic construct. With all the jumble of emotions, urges, values, and goals, it is often at odds with itself - and that's normal and healthy for a living creature. So rather than striving to be less alive, I should instead strive to bring my competing interests into more harmonious, ecological relationships.
  2. Integrity is not moral domination; it's creative redemption. Suppressing my vices by sheer force of will does not make me a more integrated person - rather, it means slicing my being into "good" and "bad" aspects: in other words, dis-integration. By welcoming the dark voices of temptation into the light, providing them a full seat at the council of my heart, I can redeem them or at least learn about them, and in the process become more whole.
  3. Integrity is not halfness; it's wholeness. Two years ago I became disillusioned with technology, and sold or gave away a lot of my gadgets. Farm Gary didn't want them, and I just wanted to be Farm Gary. Then, six months later, I swung into nerd mode and wanted most of them back. Code Gary, it turned out, was alive - and a bit peeved at having been presumed dead. Trying to sever part of myself - in the name of integrity - effected dis-integration and thus dis-integrity. Nowadays, I try to give both my inner nerd and my inner farmer the space to live, even though they often disagree.
  4. Integrity is not consistency; it's careful elasticity. Life is change, and a harmonious being must change freely and nimbly. Rigidity means brittleness, but flexibility is true strength. A truly integrated person does not stubbornly cling to his identity, but changes it as often as necessary. Likewise a truly integrated person never presumes himself complete, and thus never stops growing.
  5. Integrity is not isolation; it's integration. It's easy to think that distancing myself from certain institutions or people, avoiding their taint, will improve my integrity, but this is exactly what the priest and the Levite did, while the Good Samaritan got his hands dirty. Many people criticize Thoreau because while living at Walden he often went into town to dine with friends. But I say that his continuing to live in the "real world", among lifelong acquaintances, gave his experiment true integrity and relevance. (An experiment in "laboratory conditions", with no social ties, no favors, and no compromises would be an experiment utterly irrelevant to real life.)
  6. Most importantly: Integrity is not conceptual; it's incarnate. True integrity does not mean conforming to an idea. It means using ideas when necessary (and abandoning them when necessary) to care for real, irreducible creatures. This is certainly the example of Jesus, who healed on the Sabbath, touched lepers, and dined with tax collectors. He sacrificed his adherence to the idea of morality in order to serve and love incarnate people.

This list is useful for how I view myself, but it's even more useful when thinking of others. Perhaps I've dismissed some people as hypocrites who were really just caught in the messy process of changing. Perhaps I've made it hard for people to be themselves by expecting from them a disintegral integrity. Perhaps I've expected people to follow their ideals, when they needed to compromise and adjust their ideals to better serve reality. In general I should expect people to be the complex creatures that they are, and appreciate a natural, ecological, incarnate integrity more than a disembodied, abstract one.