Integrity, as American as Abraham Lincoln, has gone missing in the American soul, like Bernie Madoff's billions. The nation's future harmony and prosperity may depend on restoring this vital virtue.
We can understand integrity if, through our imagination, we step into the spirit of Lincoln, our secular saint. First, let's consider what integrity (and the lack of it) means.
The lack of this virtue in American life is like a trillion-dollar campaign contribution to national self-sabotage. Wall Street's financial follies, as one example, are a study in the art of manifest unscrupulousness. With this fraudulency comes enormous grief and misery.
Corrupt financiers and self-serving politicians must be among the unhappiest people in the world. That's because integrity is a necessary ingredient in stable, lasting happiness. Integrity is an expression of self-respect. The virtue of integrity develops as we feel our intrinsic goodness and care about our personal honor. Integrity requires that we do the right thing, as Oprah Winfrey says, even when nobody's going to know whether we did it or not.
We do what's right for our own sake because our integrity won't allow us to tarnish that precious feeling of our essential honor and self-respect.
Integrity also accesses inner truth and thereby raises our intelligence. We start to realize that other people have as much value and goodness as we can feel in ourself. When we feel true self-respect, we know that everyone else is entitled to that same sense of inner value. Even criminals get respect, in the sense that we profess an ideal that gives them a fair trial and a chance at rehabilitation.
The Greek words 'integritas' and 'integra' mean whole. Each of us is part of the whole. We feel this to be true and we act accordingly--with openness, kindness, and generosity. This is the higher meaning of liberty, to live in a society where laws, custom, and civility afford us full respect. The spirit of liberty and the social pact of mutual respect constitute the foundation of American democracy, more so than laws that can be twisted and contorted.
The testimony is overwhelming that Lincoln had a great respect for all of life. Lincoln "had an unusually intense sympathy with the suffering of his fellow creatures," writes William Lee Miller in Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2007).
"This sympathy," Miller writes, "extended also, as is not always the case with animal lovers, to his fellow human beings: to the old Indian who wandered into the camp; the woman whose drunken husband beat her; the farm boy who is going to be shot for falling asleep on sentry duty; the coffle of slaves on the boat in the Ohio, chained together like fish on a line."
Having integrity means being in contact, in a feeling way, with the richness, the pleasure, and the happiness of self-respect and mutual respect. If we don't have that consciousness, meaning the ability to associate our own well-being with the needs and happiness of others, we descend into the hollowness of egotism, narcissism, entitlement, and individualism.
In his reflections on slavery, writes Miller, Lincoln was constant in his adherence to the idea that the United States "was founded upon the proposition that all men are created equal, as stated in the Declaration of Independence." In the finest meaning of integrity, all parts of the whole are of equal value. As Lincoln understood, the whole can't be broken down into lesser values. The whole and the parts are one.
The word integrity applies to a code of moral values. Lincoln, writes Miller, displayed "a distinct quality of tact, generosity, and civility" in his dealings with supporters, opponents, editors, and clients. Lincoln also applied the principles of integrity to his concept of the nation. Throughout the Civil War, Lincoln never wavered in his commitment to the integrity of the Union. In his mind, the Union was unbroken. For Lincoln, the Civil War was a rebellion or insurrection, not a war between two sovereign states.
Now it appears that a corporate structure enabled by extreme right-wing politicians is striving to "break away" from the Union, to separate itself from federal authority by rendering the government weak and toothless and by taking it over. If we can't feel personal integrity, we won't be able to register in our own mind this threat to the integrity of the Union.
How do we raise the level of our integrity? We all can be lacking in integrity to the degree that we're entangled in hostile, negative feelings toward those who don't see or interpret the world as we do. We need to close the gap between the ideals we profess and the negativity we feel.
In part, the process involves personal insight into our own emotional or psychological weaknesses. Self-knowledge that is assimilated overcomes personal dysfunction. This process enables us to become integrated as we establish an inner union of the contentious dynamics and forces in our psyche.