0428 – define integrity and embody it

integrity (n.)
c. 1400, “innocence, blamelessness; chastity, purity,” from Old French integrité or directly from Latin integritatem (nominative integritas) “soundness, wholeness, blamelessness,” from Latin integer (adj.) “whole, complete,” figuratively, “untainted, upright,” literally “untouched,” from in- “not” (see in- (1)) + root of tangere “to touch” (see tangent (adj.)). The word was used earlier in English as an adjective meaning “whole, entire” (c. 1500).

Today I want to think about integrity and solitude, and what it means to be a man of one’s word. This is coming off of re-reading the “Leadership and Solitude” essay, and reading the first 20% of The Fountainhead.

When I think about Integrity, the first thing I think of is about “core values” in schools. I remember always being very amused about them, how it felt like a bunch of cliches that we were expected to read off of. It felt like a mutually agreed upon fiction that everyone was supposed to go through the motions of.

This had the slightly unintended, negative effect of putting me off the idea of thinking about core values for a long time. I think it’s because values are something that people should discover for themselves, within themselves. You can’t just subscribe to somebody else’s. You can take a bunch of ideas from elsewhere, read them, but you only internalize what makes sense to you, in your own language, on your own terms. At least, that’s what I believe. Values are caught, not taught. You can’t tell people how they should be– you inspire it through demonstration.

I’m looking back at my Junior College’s values now: “Commitment. Perserverance. Independent Learning. Innovation. Integrity. Teamwork. Social Responsibility.” I remember seeing them plastered on the walls of the school hall, and I remember inwardly laughing at how hollow all of them seemed. I was just revulsed in some way. It felt creepy, Orwellian.

Today I recognize that all of those values are good, useful, important things. But not because I encountered the words on a wall in school. Specifically I want to focus on Integrity, because it’s something I never cared very much for until recently.

I used to think of myself as a very lackadaisical, devil-may-care, happy-go-lucky sort of individual. I was almost proud of the fact that I was generally irresponsible and unreliable. To me, it meant that I didn’t belong to anybody (on hindsight: not even to myself). I was very appreciative of Kurt Cobain’s quote, “I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.” I thought there was an integrity about that that I could believe in. [1] Unfortunately Kurt killed himself at 27, so we can’t really ask him how that worked out for him. I wonder what he would’ve said about it if he lived till 50. After all, “I hope I die before I get old” Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend are in their 70s now.

I’ve like the use of the word “integrity” to talk about ships. Hull integrity. The integrity of the hull has been breached. I actually think that’s a great way of thinking about it when applying it to personal values. Integrity isn’t some mystical, hifalutin, god-like attribute. It’s really just about keeping your ship afloat. About keeping out BS. About being internally consistent, about not having leakages. You can’t reliably fire a cannon from a tiny, leaky vessel.

Anyway. Over the years I’ve lost good friends and missed all sorts of opportunities that I might not have even been aware of, because of my inability to be responsible, accountable. I’ve written about this multiple times already. When I write about it, I typically come up with some rah-rah ‘things are gonna change around here’ statements. But things haven’t changed nearly as much as I’d like them to. And maybe I need to frame the problem a little bit differently.

Here’s what I’m starting to realize. Life is exhausting without integrity. It’s so much simpler if I simply do what I say I’ll do. I don’t have to spend any time constructing excuses or explanations for why things don’t get done. I don’t have to face people with a queasiness in my stomach, I don’t have to stare at my feet and be embarrassed at how I’m failing to meet my responsibilities and obligations.

And perhaps more importantly– it allows for better conversations. The worst thing about having a conversation with an unreliable person is having to repeatedly ask them if they’re on track, if they remembered this, if they’ll do what they say they’re going to do. I’ve experienced this when dealing with others like myself, and I realize it must be all the more annoying for people who have to deal with me. For all sorts of reasons.

What do I want to get at with this vomit? That I don’t need to actually care about archaic, historic meanings. I don’t really need to dive into scholarship of ethics and Socrates and Plato and such (though I do know Seneca, Plutarch, etc have some pretty good things to say about this…)

Um… I guess this didn’t really need a vomit’s length to say. I just wanted to say that I think integrity is not just important (in whatever grandiose moral sense) but really useful. It’s like being systematic when you’re looking for a lost object– if you look very carefully through a room, starting with one corner, one drawer, etc, then you can systematically rule things out and reduce amount of area that you haven’t checked (rather than going on a random rampage around the house trying to find it.)

It’s kind of interesting to think about how this relates to sorting algorithms.

Uh. I guess this is one of those “filling out the numbers” vomits.


[1] I recognize now that that’s an oversimplistic idea, at least when taken by itself. “Who I am” is a nebulous concept. You can be yourself and still be liked. Just because people hate you doesn’t mean you’re somehow doing something right. It’s a rah-rah statement that isn’t actually all that useful in figuring out what to do with your life.

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