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
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
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.
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).