What does integrity mean? I understand it to mean many things. Honesty, of course, and acting in a way that is acceptable, commendable, and honorable. The very sound of it is strong, almost provocative. It was not something I necessarily took for granted, but I used to understand it as inherent in everyone. If all people have the capacity for good, then they must all have the capacity for integrity. It is not a tangible quality, or one that can be seen with the naked eye. It cannot easily be identified by any external means. I did not need to give much thought to the meaning of the word until I was forced to accept that it can be, and is, grossly lacking in some. In a way, I feel almost spoiled; in examining the majority of people who surrounded me throughout my life, it is clear now that I probably came to expect integrity from everyone because those closest to me, those who shaped who I am, displayed endless depths of the stuff without me truly realizing it until now. When you are surrounded by beauty, how would you know what is not beautiful? When you are surrounded by integrity, how would you know when it is lacking? Plain and simple: when it simply is not there.
In considering what integrity means and what I have come to expect of others, I needed to look up the actual definition. According to the Oxford Dictionary, it is defined as:
1. the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness
2. the state of being whole and undivided
This was certainly eye-opening. The first definition seems fairly obvious and in line with what I felt to be true about this word. The trouble with it, however, is what each person may perceive to be right, moral, and upright. That is a whole other bag of worms.
The second one was also familiar to me. In medicine, we define the integrity of tissues and organs as being intact and thus functional. It was interesting to shift this definition to describe a person as a whole. Yes, I feel whole and undivided when those with great integrity are around me. I feel at ease, joyful, trusting, and lighthearted. Yet when someone’s actions interrupt this course, it leaves me feeling rather … shattered. The whole is no longer cohesive. Don’t get me wrong; those most important to me unknowingly tie together the pieces, but the very knowledge that everyone is not like this is troubling, to say the least. I am shown new ways to stay whole and spend a great deal of time surrounding myself with those who fit my understanding of integrity while shying away from those who have proven, often unwittingly, that their intentions are not upright.
I realize more and more each day that my husband truly magnifies what I have always subconsciously understood to be integrity. I am also blown away when I consider each and every person I’ve encountered throughout school and residency who has shown me over and over again the importance and rarity of this quality. It seems strange that they could all be such diamonds in the rough, but it is true. In the past few years, I have also seen the integrity in my mom, and am in wonderment of her when I think back on all that she’s endured. Still, she has stepped forward with strength and love, and she always tries to steer me in the right direction when I begin to veer away from it. I see this in my mother- and father-in-law as well. How lucky am I to have so many beautiful souls shaping my life!
Some take their suffering and turn it into an excuse to act out, complain, or blame others for their misfortunes. Perhaps if they had been surrounded by and brought up by those with great integrity, they would not be so lacking in it themselves. On the other hand, some are just blind to it when it is right in front of them. Two people may grow up in the same household and be vastly different creatures by the time they reach adulthood. I have seen this over and over again.
So how do we assure that our future generations understand the meaning of integrity? Can it be taught? Can it be passed down? Can it be harvested? Or is it something we just have to do our best to exemplify and hope that they see its rewards?