Lots of us are having trouble with our integrity.
One of my friends, a trustworthy man who normally behaves with integrity, told me that he did some cheating recently. He presented the following story to me—not to admit cheating, but as an example of his creativity and practicality:
Having flown to another city, he rented a Jeep. The rental company had performed the usual vehicle inspection and had provided my friend with a document showing all scratches, dents, etc. He didn’t pay much attention to the paperwork before he left the airport for the drive to his destination.
The next day he noticed that a small trim piece on the front of the hood was missing. His inspection sheet did not identify this problem. Wondering if the trim piece had fallen off after he had rented the Jeep, my friend went to a Jeep dealer to see if he could replace it. The oval trim is one of seven on the hood of a Jeep and he learned he would have to buy all seven in a package. Cost $189.
Too costly, he thought, so he purchased a can of spray paint and carefully painted a simulation of the trim piece onto the hood of the car, hoping it would pass inspection when he returned the car at the airport.
It did pass, my friend reported, chuckling about his successful deception.
If you’re agreeing that this deception is ok, you have a problem with your integrity, as does my friend.
My troubles with integrity
Of course I’ve had problems with integrity myself, as I consciously violated my values every time I cheated, lied, or betrayed. I was taught in Sunday School to be an honest person, true and pure. That level of virtue would be prove very difficult to achieve for much of my adult life.
But I have always valued integrity, so much so that I can recall clearly the times when I knowingly breached my ethical standards. I still feel pain and discomfort when I remember my lapses of integrity, even lapses that happened decades ago.
One of those lapses occurred 25 years ago. I was CEO of an organization whose mission was the elimination of poverty. During the two-plus decades that I led the agency, I set a high standard for employee ethics. I used to assert that even taking a pencil or a piece of paper from the agency for personal use was theft from poor people, the people we were paid to serve. We fired people who had trouble with integrity.
But one night I found myself at work without my car, which had broken down. Most of the employees had gone home for the day and I had no way to get home, 23 miles away. Our agency had vehicles and I mentioned my dilemma to our Operations Director, who was still in the building. I could take one home, I told her, but was troubled about violating agency policies, even though they didn’t precisely cover this situation. She suggested I use an agency car, and I—troubled about a clear violation of my own ethical standards—took the vehicle home. The next day, I suggested to the Operations Director that I could repay the agency for the use of the car. She said forget about it, it was too much trouble.
I had compromised myself and compromised the Operations Director at the same time. Now my cheating had given my colleague an unwanted edge in our relationship, a relationship that I valued for its mutual respect.
I am chagrined to remember this inconsistency in my ethical behavior.
And I haven’t stopped regretting the other problems I have had with integrity in the past, especially the marital betrayals.
Any lack in our integrity blocks our emergence. So a warrior spends a lifetime cleaning up his or her act, and I have cleaned mine up. I am now boringly honest so that I can emerge.
Lying, cheating and betrayal are endemic at our current level of evolution
Many people, probably most, cheat on their income tax returns, not claiming income or distorting deductions. Many of the contractors we have engaged over the last 20 years to perform home repair offered to discount the bill if we were willing to pay in cash rather than make a check to their business, thus dodging the tax man. With every crooked tax return they cheat their fellow citizens, even though they probably rationalize their dishonesty as common practice.
On the macro level of cheating, the people of Greece have bankrupted their country, partially because they don’t pay their income tax. The country is mired in debt and international humiliation.
Cheating in professional sports is widespread as athletes cheat with performance enhancing drugs.
In the last decade, our nation’s leading banks and other financial institutions systematically and intentionally misrepresented mortgage details to customers. Then they sold bundles of these dishonest mortgages to investors, who lost billions of dollars as those mortgages were foreclosed upon.
Now our nation is watching transfixed as our President spools out lie after lie, emboldened by supporters who have a malfunctioning moral compass.
The human species is wounding itself, however unconsciously, because we have a big problem with integrity.
Why people lack integrity
These deep problems of integrity at our current stage of human evolution are rooted in several issues:
Fear. Most of the human species have not crossed the first threshold of learning, fear. To survive, then, people cheat in all sorts of ways, convinced that they must manipulate and deceive others. Fearful, they are cornered animals at times, defending their positions with whatever ruthless means they have at their disposal.
To be fearless does not mean that you don’t experience fear: it means that fear never makes any decisions. To be fearful means that fear makes decisions, frequently, if not all of the time. And those decisions are always based on bad explanations of reality. The most fearful people in our lives cannot be trusted. People who have given in to fear have a big problem with integrity.
Family and culture. If we are raised in a family whose members cut ethical corners as a way of life, we are likely to have a lot to learn about integrity. It’s possible to learn your way out of this problem, but very difficult for most people.
Some cultures seem built on lies, especially all of the authoritarian cultures, where corruption is the mode of the day. People in these cultures may take for granted that their very survival depends on their ability to cheat, deceive, steal, or betray. They may believe—for good reason—that ethical behavior will cause their death or great harm.
The ease of deception. Remember Tiger Woods, married with children, unfaithful with numerous women. His problems with integrity were profound, but his celebrity and wealth made betrayal easy. He was two different people—a husband and father who was full of integrity, goodness, and charm—and a betrayer who was a narcissist, greedy, pretending virtues he did not possess.
Remember Bernie Madoff? He betrayed the trust of thousands of people who assumed that he was a brilliant, honest investor. It’s not difficult to cull the average person, and when the truth was finally known, his victims—many of whom were educated, successful people—sobbed and wailed about the Judas who picked their pockets. Madoff found it easy to cheat for decades without detection because his clients were delusional.
Lack of knowledge about emergence. People who have a problem with integrity don’t have much self-awareness. They don’t realize that everything we put out comes back to us. Cheat and you will be cheated. Betray and you will be betrayed. Lie and you will be lied to. But low-integrity men and women don’t know about this basic law of human relations.
Dishonest people don’t know that to the extent our integrity is flawed, our emergence is blocked. We can’t grow and develop so long as we create our relationships based on lies. But people with an integrity problem move in darkness, operating with a bad explanation for reality, an explanation that does not value personal evolution.
Moving toward a perfect integrity
A life of integrity is richly rewarding if we’re willing to take a chance and be honest people. Some of the obvious rewards include:
1. We don’t have anxiety that our deceptions will be discovered
2. Our relationships improve when others find us trustworthy
3. We don’t have to spend any of our precious energy furtively covering our tracks
A not so obvious reward that a life of integrity brings is emergence into our true self—a dynamic learning about what is possible for our lives.
Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter, his famous novel about integrity, finishes his story of betrayal with this moral teaching:
“Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!”
Let’s clean up our warrior acts. It’s not that difficult because we don’t have that much left in us that is false.
In a state of sustained poise, we are trustworthy, untroubled on our path of love.