Friends School of Minnesota alumnus Riley Wheaton (FSM Class of 2012) shared this essay he wrote for his writing seminar class at St. Paul Academy and Summit School.
“My teacher suggested starting with one word and trying to define it using connotations and denotations. The first one that I thought of was integrity since we spent time grappling with it at FSM. Integrity always felt like one of the toughest of our values to simply define when we’d bring it up in class, but I think I’ve gained a much better understanding since I graduated and I hoped to explore that in my paper. “
Expository Essay about Integrity
by Riley Wheaton
A ring of petals within a ring of petals within a ring of petals all ringed by flame. The signs of the zodiac floating around the outside bounded by the four major phases of the moon. And below it all, the single word “INTEGRITY.” This is a description of an abstract painting which occupies an exalted piece of wall at my old middle school. It’s a Quaker school that lives by the five core values of peace, simplicity, equality, integrity, and community, and feel the need to have their students immortalize these values in a series of group generated paintings. Most of these paintings are quite to the point, but the one for integrity is perhaps the least concrete and at the same time most beautiful. It always caught my eye and even after the painting itself has long faded from my day to day experiences, the value it tried to emphasize continues to intrigue me.
Integrity is a difficult word to define with any degree of relevance. Integrity comes, originally, from “c.1400, ‘innocence, blamelessness; chastity, purity,’ from Old French integrité or directly from Latin integritatem (nominative integritas) ‘soundness, wholeness, blamelessness,’ from integer ‘whole’ (see integer). Sense of ‘wholeness, perfect condition’ is mid-15c” (“Integrity” Online Etymology Dictionary). But with all these other values rolled into the definition, it’s hard to get a clear picture of what integrity means. It’s like trying to take a family picture in the middle of a crowd. Nevertheless, this is the picture we need. We just have to focus.
The Quakers (or in this case the American Friends Service Committee) have their own definition which goes “Consistency in Word and Deed.” They go on to narrow the definition to include some actions that define integrity such as “speaking the truth to all, including people in positions of power. Friends do not take oaths when appearing in a court of law, rejecting the idea that there is one standard of truth for daily living and another for the court” (“Integrity” American). Speaking truth to others, giving credit where it’s due, and generally being honest with others deals with a relationship between an individual and others. Your interactions with others should be in line with your beliefs. But what if your beliefs don’t preclude lying to those around you?
In the popular Netflix series House of Cards, the protagonist Frank Underwood is a lying, cheating, manipulative politician who almost always gets what he wants. He occasionally turns to the camera and gives asides like “There are two kinds of pain…The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain, the sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things. Moments like this require someone who will act, who will do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing. There. No more pain.” (House of Cards) All spoken while strangling a recently run over dog. He is a man of ruthless integrity, just not the sort his coworkers might mention in a recommendation. Frank’s morals are merciless, self centered, and generally considered amoral. And he lives by this value set with as much consistency as the most chaste preacher. History is littered with ruthless people who’ve known themselves unerringly well, and who’ve achieved great things. But any connection between integrity and purity or goodness is wishful thinking. The two can exist together, but it’s a far cry from that to any direct connection between them.
The reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was, without doubt, a great man. A man with vision, whose oratorical skill brought his beautiful dream to millions. He will be remembered for his perseverance and compassion, but not for his integrity. According to an article in the International Business Times “King’s right-hand man, Ralph Abernathy, wrote in his 1989 autobiography that the staff ‘all understood and believed in the biblical prohibition against sex outside marriage. It was just that he had a particularly difficult time with that temptation.’ Abernathy also wrote that King had a ‘weakness for women’ while [Lyndon B] Johnson – who considered King’s criticism of Vietnam a personal betrayal – called him a ‘hypocritical preacher.’” (Stone) King showed weakness to temptation, he wasn’t unabashed. Weakness tends to go along with hypocrisy, in diametric opposition to integrity. His actions did not line up with his values. But that does not make him any less of a giant in American history. It’s very possible (even common) for goodness to exist without integrity.
Integrity (and lack thereof) can be tricky to spot in others, since it’s so internal and motivational. But the author Terry Pratchett sums it up in the maxim of a particularly colorful character “It’s alright to tell lies if you don’t think lies” (Maskerade!). To ruthlessly criticize someone and then break down at the slightest retort lacks integrity, to compulsively speak your mind shows great integrity. To declare something excessively dramatic just to get attention lacks integrity, while agreeing with your friend that you really do hate that book which you’ve secretly read five times lacks integrity. Here’s the snag: following your own values sometimes means being dishonest. For some, decent good people, empathy comes before honesty. Hearing a friend deliver a terrible rendition of a beloved song and then listing all the things that are wrong with it might have integrity, but only for those who value aggressive honesty over empathy. Integrity is not about honesty to others, it’s about honesty with self.
Rationalizations are the enemy of integrity and make us feel better about not having it. So while explanations that deny our true motivations may be comforting at times, they are truly the opposite of living with integrity. But every human falters. Not every human is a serial adulterer, but everyone occasionally does something out of line with his or her values. Does this mean that human beings can’t live with integrity? Or does it take true integrity to stand up to yourself and tell a child “I’m sorry I yelled, I was just angry. What I said was not true.” Is it how we deal with those times that we falter that exposes true integrity?
“House of Cards (2013) Episode Scripts 101 – Chapter 1.” Springfield! Springfield! N.p., n.d.
Web. 25 Sept. 2014.
“Integrity.” American Friends Service Community. American Friends Service Community, n.d.
Web. 25 Sept. 2014. <http://www.afsc.org/testimonies/integrity>.
“Integrity.” Online Etymology Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2014.
Pratchett, Terence David, OBE. Maskerade! N.p.: Victor Gollancz, 1995. Print.
Stone, Jeff. “Martin Luther King Cheated On His Wife & Other Lesser-Known Facts About The
Civil Rights Leader For MLK Day.” International Business Times. International Business
Times, 21 Jan. 2013. Web. 25 Sept. 2014. <http://www.ibtimes.com/martin-luther-king-