The Search for Integrity


This entry was first written about 1994, I think, and was one of the early attempts to get my mind around the concept of this subject. It consists of a number of fragments, which appear here pretty much unredacted. This is a crude cut and paste from an old MS Word document, so please excuse the way some paragraphs shout.

The Search for Integrity

The human experience is becoming increasingly compartmentalized. Work is separate from family, both are separate from leisure pursuits. Social interaction is yet another category.

The human psyche is also very much that way.

During the televised Senate hearings of the so-called “Iran-Contra” affair, Admiral John Poindexter was questioned closely about what he knew when, and what he may have told the president. At issue was whether information he received on a particular day may have been passed on at a subsequent meeting with the President on the same day. Regarding his insistence that no such transfer of information took place, Poindexter explained rather patiently to a senator that part of his responsibility as a member of the National Security Council was to keep things “highly compartmentalized” in his own mind.

In that context, this compartmentalization was seen as a virtue. In the context of public life, it is often considered at least a necessity.

In a social context that wants to keep each matter in its appropriate setting, the search for integrity is elusive.

What is integrity?

Let me give you the punch line first, as a working definition. It works for me as I have struggled with the search for integrity in my own life. But before that, a brief bit of personal history.

I have a card that was given to me on the occasion of my nineteenth birthday. It is signed by a number of my fellow inmates (they called us “patients”) at a private psychiatric hospital. I had been there for a little over two months, and would remain there for nearly seven months more. My family was telling people I had had a nervous breakdown. The truth had to do more specifically with drugs.

I went into the hospital the day after I told my parents I had been doing too much LSD. If this was a nervous breakdown, it was because  the strain of living a double life had become too much for me. The decision to TELL THE TRUTH was a first step in the search for integrity.

A few years later, I went to a different state to attend a Christian college. While I was there, a friend of mine came to visit. It was one of those fellow patients who had signed that birthday card. I was now a ministerial student, moving in respectable circles. My friend was still having major problems with drugs. Something in me wanted him to stay in the apartment or find something else to do when I had to be on campus. I had to confront that something and by a conscious, emotionally difficult act invite him to be with me. It was an essential step in my search for integrity.

Maybe those personal tidbits will help you understand how I might have arrived at this working definition:

INTEGRITY is that personal, volitional characteristic whereby I can allow or encourage all the different parts of my life to acknowledge one another.

There’s my personal working definition, and you need to know it in order to understand a lot of what else I am going to have to say. Can it be modified to incorporate corporate integrity at the level of family, business enterprise, church, government? I think so. Let’s now look at some other things about integrity.

How about a word list:

Integration Integer Truthfulness UNITY HONESTY SINGLENESS WHOLENESS Holiness

What I am calling integrity is at the root of spiritual power, as attested by sources from many traditions. Zen master Hongzhi, a twelfth-century Chinese monk Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi, translated by Taigen Daniel Leighton with Yi Wi (North Point Press: San Francisco, 1991), p. 12], says:

When you face what you have excluded and see how it appears, you must quickly gather it together and integrate with it. Make it work within your house. . .

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote an extended essay (an “edifying discourse”) under the title, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.

Integration was a big word in this country a number of years ago. Its antonym was segregation, the keeping of different categories of people apart. The Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education made it a requirement that public school systems renounce the practice of racially segregating the students. This requirement became the occasion for decades of social upheaval in the United States. If racial integration is a social reflection of a part – just a part – of what I mean by INTEGRITY, namely the bringing together of what had been kept separate, and the pursuit of wholeness, we might be able to learn a few things about the search for INTEGRITY from this experience the nation has gone through together:

  • It is a long process.
  • It begins with a conscious determination that the goal is worthwhile.
  • It requires work, experimentation, frequent re-evaluation, and acceptance of incremental successes.
  • It disrupts normal (habitual, familiar) life.
  • It has painful side effects.
  • It has beneficial long-term effects that go beyond the original stated goal.

I am talking about the search for integrity because I think that wholeness is always a process of arriving. A whole pumpkin seed (or any kind of seed; I choose pumpkins because my children planted pumpkins in the garden this year) has something pumpkin-like about it, but it is different from a whole pumpkin. If it seeks to remain seed-like, without seeking out its pumpkin-ness, it will retain integrity as a seed only. If arriving at the goal means abandoning the search, then growth is precluded. And the search for integrity is a process of growth.

Growth means change. Seeking means risking new discoveries. Integrating with what one used to exclude means losing some of what had been one’s defining identity. Gaining therefore means losing in the process of this struggle.

The theme of this book begins with the question commonly asked of children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Peter Pan would disallow the question. He wants to be what he is already. His entourage, appropriately dubbed “the lost boys,” retain integrity of a limited sort, at the expense of growth. Forever children, playing at Indians and pirates, they lack the desire or ability to grow. Reading the story, we envy and pity them, perhaps, at the same time.

Is it possible to acknowledge the Peter Pan within us, the playful child who lives in Neverland, and still grow up to be adults? Or does Peter, if he grows up, have to forget the child that he was, like Robin Williams’ portrayal of the character in the movie Hook? These are questions that have to do with our subject.

The search for integrity is both simple and complex, just as humans are both simple and complex. It is a search, let us say, for single-mindedness. Or we could say it is a search for personal identity, an answer to that most fundamental of personal philosophical questions, “who am I?” The problem is, of course, that there does not seem to be a single, comprehensive answer to such a question. It is a matter of roles.

Roles, faces, masks, personae; I present any number of faces to the world, and to myself. An effective actor plays each role believably, and as the saying goes, gets into his part, becomes the part for the time. She feels it, lives it, knows and understands her character; and at the same time is detached enough to stand apart.

Are we so different?

Let’s talk about Alethea.

Alethea is a researcher, and in many ways a teacher. She believes that all things hidden both can and should be revealed. She denies the forgetfulness that brings sleep and death, and serves as a watcher and encourager for those who would wake. She is ancient, and forever young.

Her name means, among other things, Revelation. Her mission is the unveiling of secrets.

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