As I struggle with the darkness of our world, the uncertainty of the future, and the gross, volatile excesses of our leaders, I come to only one solution. It’s a small solution, no doubt, and it often feels insufficient. It may change nothing in our world, but it is the only thing I know to do: to live with integrity.
I may not be able to change the course of history, I may not be able to speak directly to the president, to CEO’s, to the selfish and the proud. I may not have an audience of millions, and I may never reach beyond my tiny sphere of influence. But I can strive to live with integrity, to work out – to lift a phrase from Saint Paul – my own salvation with fear and trembling.
But what is integrity? As I’ve meditated on this question, I find that it is surprisingly hard to answer in full. Here’s what I’ve got so far:
This is a broad word – one I hear so often it becomes meaningless. It’s amorphous, conjuring sometimes warm, sometimes uncomfortable feelings. So what does humility mean?
The willingness to accept that we all have blind spots. An absolute faith in our capacity to see and understand all is a dangerous, deadly thing. Our brains make faulty judgments all the time, and it is natural to us to trust everything our brains say. That is a path of suffering, for ourselves and others. When I consider all the interpersonal problems in my life, I can identify the source of most of them as a blind faith in my own rightness.
The willingness to promptly admit when I am wrong. We often know we are wrong, but our need to appear on top keeps us fighting, posing, and defending our case. We are great lawyers for ourselves. It’s in our nature to dig in our heels and insist on our rightness, but it leads to brokenness. It leaves a trail of blood in it’s wake. It takes a great strength to admit one is wrong.
A willingness to admit I don’t know. We don’t have all the answers – even the wisest and truest among us. I’ve had many teachers in my life – in yoga, music, and spirituality. They passed skill and understanding on to me, but they taught me just as much in the moments they had the humility to say, “I don’t know.” When they uttered those words, their lessons went beyond music or yoga or theology, and extended into how to live, how to find peace. Accepting the reality that we don’t know is a path to peace.
How often do we respond with certainty, fear, or anger to things we don’t understand? How often do we feel outrage at the actions or words of others that we simply cannot comprehend? We respond to the mysterious in others by fortifying our fortress walls.
This is a primitive part of our brain speaking – the amygdala, which responds to threats to our worldview and threats to our physical safety as the same thing. When we hear something that doesn’t make sense, our amygdala tells us to watch out, to hunker down in the tall grass and fight for our lives. It causes cortisol to spike, and our fear and anger levels to rise.
This part of our brain, once so necessary for our survival (and often still is – it allows us to respond immediately to the car that swerves dangerously in front of us on the highway) shuts down the higher mind, the better angels of our nature. It shuts down humility, the gifts of the spirit, and a capacity to explore unknown ideas.
Curiosity, therefore, takes great practice. It takes conscious effort to cultivate curiosity about the unusual, mysterious, and different. I exercise this by asking myself questions: “What brought this person to this conclusion? Why do they believe this? Could this idea be true? What does that mean? What would the world look like if it is true? What does it mean that this person believes this way?” The longer I sit with these questions, the better. Understanding is never against our favor – it will always aide us in our arguments and goals.
It always strikes me as self defeating and myopic, the way so many people get angry at simply conversing with people they perceive as enemies. They might still be ideological enemies, but conversing with them and asking questions will aide me in the battle of ideas.
Holding to What We Believe to Be True
The final, crucial aspect of integrity is to accept what we do know, and to trust that that is enough. We might indeed be wrong, we might need to change our tune, but if we have put in our time and work, if we have done the best we can with the evidence that has been given to us, we can commit to what we believe without apology. Don’t cower, don’t apologize. If you have put in good work, stand by your assertions humbly. Admit you might be wrong, and admit that you, at present, can see the world in no other way. This is the path that makes the most sense to you, this is what where the evidence points you. Until someone offers something better – which they certainly may – stand by what you believe.
Emulate the words attributed to the Martin Luther, when he dared to defy the Catholic Church: “Here I stand, I can do no other.”