What Is Integrity? 4 Insights On Being True To Yourself

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.” ― Virginia Woolf

Like a blank canvas, the empty white walls are eager to be painted with the blood of secrets. Within its 20 square feet, the DVR sings a soft hum blanketing the thin, concrete carpet, resonating an aura of sterility. Two plastic chairs are positioned in middle of the tiny space, facing one another, intent on conjoining. Though there is little room for movement, the space is capable of containing a skywide expanse of joys, tales and tears.

The white washed halls echo the clamp and clog of my secondhand leather shoes. My stomach gurgles and churns at the silence of the sanatorium hallway. In a few moments, the path I once charged down will come to an abrupt end. I open the office door, sit across from his fidgeting hands and explain, "there has been a change, I can longer be your counselor."

You Can Choose Nothing If You Forsake Yourself*

We often marvel at the immense force of minute change over time. A thin stream can carve a Grand Canyon and the dusty wind shaves mountains to plains. In a similar way, the minor events, emotions and thoughts of our life can wear away our firmest ambitions. What once made the sun shine can envelope into a black hole, sucking our vitality and those closest to us along with it.

In my case, this creeping erosion has worn the once monolithic dream of becoming a counselor. There are a number of reasons for this, which I am still digesting and not yet able to articulate in an orderly “4 Reasons Why” manner. In brief, a profession I once believed to be a sanctuary of integrity turned out to be another facet of an unprincipled society. While this realization is fresh, the process began when I left my job at a mental health clinic to recuperate my own peace of mind.

This recuperation came with a lot of questions: who am I, what do I value and how can I contribute? Each question remains open to a multitude of sufficient answers. However, I only have one life and with this one life comes conflicting demands. There are demands of what we call the heart and those of society

While I am still unclear what it means to be true to one’s self, it appears that prioritizing our own needs, even at the risk of failure, is key to living a life of integrity. Without integrity to one’s own needs and desires, happiness appears irrealizable.

There are a few lessons that have emerged since I began this process. These insights have helped me remain hopeful as I reconsider my vocation. Here are 4 Ways To Be True To Yourself that have helped me assess my values and kept me in line with my own sense of integrity.

1). Embrace your uniqueness. Our everyday lives are congested with road signs and billboards selling us preset destinations. Teachers, parents, friends, authors and advertisers each play a role in shaping the person we are and our idea of who we ought to be. Yet, wherever there is an abundance of choice, there is an equal share of confusion.

Happiness, or the good life, cannot be given to us, nor can it be replicated. What works for you is unique and should be celebrated. Though we all have individuals we respect and want to replicate, we must fight the urge in favor of carving our own design. The world already produced one Picasso, Cobain, Warhol and Coltrane. It has also produced a singular you. There is more value in one you than a thousand Picassos.

At times, our uniqueness becomes lost in the sea of voices. During these times, remember originality does not consist in saying what no one else has said, but in saying exactly what you think yourself.** Only you can tell your story, which makes each of us kings/queens of our own perspective, owning a corner of knowledge unavailable to the rest of the world.

2). Be ethically bound to your passions. Our life is a collection of minute actions that influence the world. If we chose to accept the present conditions of our life, unquestioned, we cheat ourselves and the world of the richness of our uniquity. If we are not spewing fire from our mouths, the flame will simmer into a meek heartburn.

In my case, providing counseling to others without a full heart is cheating myself and my clients. I would be neglecting my own integrity by allowing myself to counsel someone while I remain unconsoled. While the word ethical carries with it a heaviness, I use it to emphasize the importance of being truthful to our inmost passions in a world of abundant pretense.

3). Pave the road, do not simply follow a route. We often chose roads based on their ease and directness. The road that gets us from point A to B with the least  traffic and potholes suits our urgency to arrive. However, the difference between a trip and a commute lies in our orientation. Trips are meant to explore the unknown, accepting each roadblock as a means of discovery while commutes meet roadblocks with frustration and anxiety.

It is cliche to encourage the road less traveled, yet we still choose the well paved tollway. Each day offers a new sun and we awake reborn from yesterday’s dying. Mornings offer a fresh choice on which road to take, the trip or the commute. Let us discard our GPS in favor of the uncharted.

4). Embrace the freedom of the unknown. For many years I have taken comfort in the predictability of well set plans. I cling to the fading horizon hoping to find a new sun, only to have it rise behind me as I rush forward. Conversely, it seems that if we choose to live aimlessly we find it as jarring as a life of routine. We seek a sense of liberation through breaking and re-chaining of our shackles, creating rules to overturn only to build structure from their ruins. 

There is a balance between the recession and inflation of our will. Similarly, if we look for freedom in either extreme, we become bound by our bias. Both approaches are vain attempts to control the unknown. By trying to control, we negate our freedom. Instead, embrace the unknown by resisting stubborn plans, goals and definitions. Let each moment, each new context, define you.

Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say

It is possible that I am crumbling the regime of my regiment in order to reconstruct a better routine. I have exhausted a perspective used to understanding mankind through the pathologizing lense of psychology. I do not want to understand myself and others through theories meant to heal souls while operating in a system that labels them as broken.

I would like to see my fellow man the way I marvel at the stars. I want to walk through the metropolis with the same serenity as the woods. Is this romantic? Yes. Yet, I have become a cynic, hardened from the vulnerable clay of idealism. My love of people has not perished, but rather shifted away from a certain mode of engaging them. A healthy dose of romanticism may be what is needed in today's analytic world.

The purpose of writing is to expel the fire in my chest. Life is too short to spend laboring towards an end that negates the work itself. I am not a guru nor an expert on how to live. All I can offer is a viewpoint -- an honest account of my experience. That being said, I cherish honesty, passion and vitality. I want each of us to leave this world with its marrow sucked dry and the earth gasping to bear our veracity.

In the end, we are not our career choice, the clothes we wear or even the ideas we endorse. Each of these remain fluid. Integrity lies in the willingness to be vulnerable and stand for something, even as we falter. If nothing else, life seems to be the process of stubborn growth in the face of certain demise.

*Franz Kafka
**James Stevens
Photo by: Skoeber