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THE MEANING OF INTEGRITY

Merging Beliefs with Actions

Clarifying the Word

The first problem with the word integrity in our culture is that it is difficult to understand as a word. It gets jumbled in our vocabulary to vaguely denote honesty or character when we describe somebody we respect. It’s interesting that there are no true definitions of integrity in a search of the first ten pages of Internet quotes. We talk about it, but we have some difficulty trying to define it.

Nevertheless, integrity is a powerful word from which we get many other words like integrate and integral. It describes two or more things merged together to create a more stable whole. In metals, for example, two or more can be joined together to create much stronger compounds as determined by their strength and stability. Iron is unstable. Steel, however, which is a compound of iron, carbon and several alloys, is iron made stronger and more flexible as a result. So strong that it’s able to sustain the long-term reliability of high-rise buildings for many years. On the other hand, when alloyed metals degrade they are referred to as losing integrity; and, as such, the metal disintegrates.

Integrity for humans is the same. It's not a behavior as much as a combination of things. As we experience life we learn and develop beliefs and values. When we take action in line with those beliefs and values, we are acting with integrity. Honesty is the behavior of telling the truth; integrity is the union of our belief (that honesty is the best practice) combined with our outward action (of actually telling the truth). 

Talking the Talk

Sometime in the 1950’s to 1960’s a popular saying among parents was, “do as I say, not as I do.” During this period, adults began to behave in scandalous ways in front of their children in a desire to freely express themselves. Free expression was the mantra of those decades. An observant child would notice that she/he was taught to turn the other cheek on Sunday, although dad got into bar fights almost every Saturday night.  

Children are taught never to use foul language, but they hear foul language everywhere, and frequently at home.  Parents feel they are teaching children well if they explain that foul words are “grown-up words,” as if somehow these words are inherently good, but not yet. The result of this is a degradation of a stable belief (“foul words are unacceptable”) as it is merged with inappropriate actions (swearing in front of children). This “merger” promotes dis-integrity. 

If you were taught (and believe) that the use of foul language degrades communication and disrespects others, you will not only have to teach this same value to your children, but you will have to consistently act in that belief for your children to witness and experience integrity. 

Integrity in a Shattered Culture

There are numerous times during an average week when children are taught or exposed to dis-integrating views. At school they are taught that cigarettes are deadly, but at home their parents smoke. Advertising tells the story of how “grown-up” it is to smoke, but they note that many people do it secretly. As such circumstances actually merge, the child feels mentally squeezed between an unstable view and a moral dilemma.

The children have the facts: Smoking is deadly; they have their loyalties: Mom and Dad smoke, but tell me it’s bad for me; and they have peers and advertising: Smoking is fun and makes you appear sophisticated. What will they choose? If they choose not to smoke they are aligning themselves with the facts and acting with integrity, but they have to go against both family loyalty and peer pressure to do it. If they have never been taught the importance of integrity, they will never have the strength to withstand these pressures.

As another example, look at the belief in our culture about underage drinking. It doesn’t hold water. It lacks integrity. The law prohibits it, but most adults think underage drinking should be up to parents to decide. There is a continuum of thought from “it really isn’t that bad” to “kids are going to do it anyway, so you might as well make sure they are doing it safely.” Again, this dis-integrity between the law and the actual practice creates anxiety and a moral dilemma for adolescents and teens.

Walking the Walk

If you are going to model integrity for your children you must “walk the walk.” Be an illustration to your children that living an integrated life is a healthy choice. When driving down the road, point out people who are speeding or driving erratically. Explain how the lines in the road and the speed limits help everyone get where they are going safely. Ask them to imagine if everyone drove without following the rules. Even those who break the rules depend on the luxury that the majority of drivers follow them. If everyone stopped following the rules of the road at once, it would cause chaos. Order would disintegrate into disorder.

You teach your children to live with integrity by the way you live your life.

If you want to teach your children to respect their bodies, your must exhibit integrity by showing respect for yours. If you want to teach your children not to smoke, you must exhibit integrity by not smoking yourself. If you want your children to lose weight, you must exhibit integrity by losing weight and getting in shape yourself. If you want your children to always be honest, you must exhibit integrity by always being honest with them and those around you. If you want your children to use good words and proper English, you must practice integrity by using good words and proper English yourself. And, on and on it goes.

Consider how you live your life. Are you living a life with your actions integrated with your values and beliefs? If so, you are living with integrity. If not, you can begin now. Become the model you want your children to be by living with integrity every day.

"Children are educated by what the grown-up is and not by his talk."
Carl Jung

 Written by Heidi Densmore

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People may doubt what you say, but they will always believe what you do