Integrity: How I Learned to Be Myself
Integrity does not mean acting the same way in every situation. It means adhering to the same values and standards in every situation.
Why would I want to be myself? Maybe people don’t like me. Don’t I want to be someone else then? Ah, but there is great danger in changing myself for others. Changing the way I dress so that I can fit in at work may not be a big deal. Changing my values or moral actions so I can fit in at work, that is tragic.
The fact is, I was that way for many years. I didn’t know how to be myself. I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know what I valued or needed or wanted.
By God’s grace, I was knocked down. I was hurt. I realized that I must learn to be myself or risk greater tragedy. Pleasing others doesn’t work. After some major failures, and some deep contemplation to learn from them, I realized why I needed to be myself.
Three Reasons to Be Myself
- Being true to myself, being honest about my values, is a good way to ward off people who won’t accept me for who I am.
- Not being myself is a good way to lose people who might have actually accepted me for who I am, if they had seen the real me.
- Changing myself to please others is a good way to end up doing something I sincerely regret. I suspect this is a reason why so many Germans allowed and/or participated in the holocaust. They simply wanted to fit in.
A Thought Experiment
I spent a serious amount of time thinking about the third reason.
First, I wondered this: if a Nazi asked me to turn in all of my Jewish neighbors, would I do it? “No way,” I thought.
At the same time, I asked myself: what have I always wanted more than anything in my entire life, but don’t have?
Then I imagined a person I loved dearly coming to me with great kindness and charisma, and offering me exactly what I’ve always wanted.
I wondered what I would do. Would I accept her offer? What if she said I had to betray my best friend in return? Would I still do it?
I contemplated these questions with honesty. I did not hide my fallen human nature, my selfish tendencies. Then I went further.
What if she didn’t ask for something as difficult as betraying my best friend? What if she just asked me to turn in all of my Jewish neighbors? People I barely know. I can have exactly what I want if I just tell her where the Jewish people in my neighborhood are hiding. And if I refuse to tell her, then I will not get what I have always wanted.
I took it further. If I refuse to tell her where my Jewish neighbors were hiding, then she would take my life. Would I turn my neighbors in if I were offered such a thing? Would I betray my deepest values?
How could I resist? I would need a damn good reason. I might even need access to the peace and joy of Heaven in order to find the fortitude to pass up the one thing I have always wanted. Only Heaven could be better than that. Only Heaven could give me the strength to give up a life of whatever I want.
“The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
The Problem with Just Being Myself
The silly little maxim, “just be yourself,” holds some degree of wisdom. Insomuch as it means “do not change yourself in order to impress others,” it is a reasonable thing to say.
In general, though, just being myself presents a problem. If I am to just be myself, then what am I to do with my evil traits? What am I to do with the aggression that resulted in me punching a wall and breaking my hand when I was a kid? What am I to do with the disagreeableness that resulted in the demise of so many of my friendships? What is the mother supposed to do when just being herself results in the abuse of her child?
How can I be my true self without committing evil acts when there is indeed evil in me?
Solution 1: Sacrifice My Morality
I could simply do all the things I feel like doing, whenever I feel like doing them, whether they are evil or not.
I could let go of my morals. This would only really work, in the long run, if I was a nihilist. Then I could be myself because my broken hand wouldn’t matter, my friendships wouldn’t matter, the abused child wouldn’t matter. Whatever I would do, it wouldn’t matter. I would have the freedom to be purely myself.
In regards to this problem of integrity, Carl Jung said, “To destroy a man’s morality does not help either because it would kill his better self…” (https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/97/09/21/reviews/jung-lecture2.html)
When I lose my morals, I also lose the best parts of myself. Without morality, my life has no meaning. The meaningful parts of my life are crucified along with my morals, and the meaningful parts are often the best parts. Comforting a friend, saving a life, suffering with dignity; none of these have any value without morality.
No, giving up my morals is not the answer. Acting on every whim, betraying my values in order to be true to myself ends up devaluing the best parts of my life, the parts with meaning and virtue.
Solution 2: Repress My Selfish or Undesirable Traits
I could simply ignore, blind myself to, anything I see as evil in myself.
Another option is to approach the problem with repression. I can hide my negative personality traits away. I can even hide them from myself. I can forget that moment in eighth grade when I punched a wall. I can place all the blame on my friends for our relationship issues. I can refuse to believe that I have evil tendencies and reassure myself that I am good person.
Then I am not, at least consciously, doing evil things. But I am not being my true self either, so we still have a problem.
There is great strength, great virtue, to be gained in knowing the evils of which I am capable. In fact, if I am incapable of evil, then I have no real virtue at all. I am only good because I have no choice in the matter. That is not virtue.
In addition to losing the positive values of my negative traits, such as the ability to protect loved ones that comes with my aggression or the ability to negotiate on their behalf that comes with my disagreeableness, I also run the risk of bursting out in moments of weakness or committing evils without even realizing it.
“…a practice the Nazis used in training the SS officer corps. The candidates for the corps would raise puppies, caring for them in every way, tending them when they were sick, feeding and grooming them, playing with them. Then, at an arbitrary moment decided upon by the trainer, these men were ordered to kill their puppies, and to do so with no sign of feeling. This training in unfeeling sadism evidently worked well, because these same men became killing machines that manned the death camps — systematically, and without emotion, torturing and murdering millions of human beings while still thinking of themselves as ‘good fellows.’”
Moore and Gillette, King Warrior Magician Lover
We have a conundrum. On the one hand, there is honesty in just being myself, doing whatever I want. At least, then, I am not changing myself for others. On the other hand, there are evil parts of myself that must be restrained if my life is to have meaning and value, and if I am to coexist with others.
Am I doomed to choose between honesty and every other virtue? No.
A Better Solution
Live My Life By an Ethic
There is a better solution than immorality or repression. There is ethic. Abiding by an ethic enables me to live with integrity while restraining my evil traits.
How can I live an honest and integrated life if I am restraining a part of myself, though? I can do it by exercising a uniquely human power that is a part of myself: the ability to make a moral decision before acting or reacting.
In a question and answer video from January 2018 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1pNn91Ewzbc), someone asked the psychologist, Jordan B. Peterson, his thoughts on healthy expression of sexuality. Peterson’s answer, though it is specific to sexual repression, applies to the problem addressed in this writing.
The question was, “how can we know the difference between unhealthy repression and healthy self-restraint of sexuality?”
After some talk about the ethics of sex, Peterson got to the point that answers the problem I have laid out in this writing. He said, “there’s the necessity to forgo immediate gratification for the purpose of medium-to-long term thriving. So if your sexuality is integrated in an ethic that encompasses the rest of your life, and if it serves that ethic, then I would say it’s properly restrained. If it’s unhealthily repressed, then you’re angry and bitter and resentful.”
We can substitute any personality trait for sexuality. Peterson’s answer still applies. For example, if my aggression is integrated in an ethic that encompasses the rest of my life, and if it serves that ethic, then it is properly restrained. I can still act on my aggression, but before I do, I must stop to decide whether using my aggression in that scenario fits into my ethic. In that case, I can avoid the resentment that comes with unhealthy repression because I am doing what I choose, not what some rule or authority has chosen for me. Thus, I avoid the classic “pushover holds in anger until he explodes” scenario. At the same time, I am maintaining my morality and being myself.
Ultimately, Peterson is saying that if I restrain a trait for a reason that is so important to me that it applies to every part of my life, then that is proper restraint. If I restrain my disagreeableness in regards to a small argument because my relationship with my best friend is so important that it applies to every part of my life, that is not a sacrifice of my integrity. It is a proper ordering of and acting upon what I value most. When my values are ordered and my actions align with that, then I have true integrity.
I would actually be less myself if I were to sacrifice my relationship with my best friend in order to allow myself to be disagreeable on a whim. I would be destroying a part of myself that I value greatly, my ability to make sacrifices for my friends, for something that I value less, my ability to disagree.
This fits with Jung’s teaching that “a mere suppression of the shadow is just as little of a remedy as beheading against headache.” Mere suppression is no remedy to an imbalanced personality trait, but recognizing one’s shadow and then restraining certain traits for a good reason, like adherence to a life-encompassing ethic, might just work.
Living with Integrity While Not Acting on Every Whim
To live with integrity, I must know the reasons for my actions. This is no easy task. How do I know if I am truly giving to the poor because I want what is best for the poor? Maybe I am doing it because I believe I am building up good karma for myself. I must know myself as well as possible. I must know my evil tendencies, know what I am capable of, and know my weaknesses.
Then, I must do everything I can to act consciously and morally. I must, in each moment, strive to know what I am doing and why I decided to do it. I must act because I believe that my action is the best action for me to take. I can do that by adhering to an ethic, a set of morals and values, that I believe is the proper way to live.
If I act because I made a moral decision to act, then I am acting with intent instead of acting on autopilot. If my morality is built on a solid foundation, if it is built upon Truth, then it will never change. And if I am faithful to my unchanging morals, then I have integrity.
Integrity means adhering to the same values and standards in every situation.
Living by an ethic, that is how I can “just be myself” without acting on every whim or feeling. Many evils can be overcome in this way.
I have integrity when all of the parts of myself are integrated. The way I integrate all of my parts is by directing them all toward an ethic.
Then, they sail like a fleet of ships guided to the same location by the same compass and map. They do not veer off or collide. The fleet that is my self sails with integrity.
The solution is pretty simple. Know my core values and beliefs, act with intent, and do not act contrary to my values and beliefs. Find a way of life with enough meaning that it can justify healthy restraint of my vices.