Integrity should be a goal for all of us in the new year.
Why does integrity matter? This is a question not asked enough, but I believe it’s essential to becoming a fully alive human being. Integrity is what makes us honest and grounded in strong moral principles.
Integrity is not an accident. It’s a moral choice we make in each interaction with others. Integrity requires commitment to virtue, to kindness and to compassion. It occurs with one decision, one act of love, one deed of kindness at a time.
No one just wakes up one morning as a person of failed integrity. That happens by a thousand surrenders of self-respect to self-interest. With each act — or failure to act — integrity slips away to reveal an ugly reality.
William Sloane Coffin Jr., the lightning-rod chaplain of Yale University in the 1960s and ’70s, once said, “There is no smaller package than a man all wrapped up in himself.” If ego drives every decision you make, integrity suffers.
You cannot grow integrity without first determining what you believe to be true and right; you must act in true and right ways when circumstances demand choices consistent with virtuous belief. If you wait until faced with a dilemma, you will rarely make the right decision. Consistency in the way we approach challenges develops our integrity. In the 1600s, Blaise Pascal wrote, “The strength of man’s virtue should not be measured by his special exertion, but by his habitual acts.” That maxim is unchanged.
I find the greatest challenge to integrity comes with the use — or abuse — of power. Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” We see virtue fail at this almost every day. Too often, individuals who rise to power or prominence have not first practiced a habit of true and right decisions.
In addition, we should not fall prey to simple-minded assertions about our goodness. Ann Landers wrote, “Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.”
The good news is that we can redirect our moral compass and re-create our integrity if needed — and if we are willing to fully invest in the effort to do so. Years ago, Bob James, a member of the Memphis City Council, blocked almost every act designed to establish integration. I got to know him when he was in his late 80s. Toward the end of his life, he told me repeatedly, “I was wrong. I know I was wrong.” And Bob worked as hard as he could to make amends for his actions. People should be given an opportunity to correct their moral course.
In this new year, I hope integrity is at the forefront of who we are and want to be. I pray we will remember the words of the Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote, “The line separating good from evil passes not through states, not between political parties either, but right through every human heart.”
Ultimately, our hearts are the well of integrity from which we draw; if not replenished, this well will surely go dry.