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Integrity starts with you – as in, by being honest with yourself about the truth of who you are. From there, it becomes easier to close the ‘values gap’ in the wider world, says Danielle Russell
Integrity is having a moment. You’ve probably read about it as alignment, authenticity, harmony, or wholeness. It is an important topic both personally and socially, because doing the work to become integral—all one—with ourselves first and foremost, is both healing and empowering.
With all the problems humanity faces today—from breathtaking inequality, to climate change, to the dire need to change the broken systems that have brought society to its knees over the past few decades—it’s more important than ever that we are able to remain true to our deepest selves, so we can genuinely connect and work on some of these problems together.
Integrity and Self
“Harmony is when what you think, what you do, and what you say are in alignment.” – attributed to Ghandi
Each of us is born whole, integral, and designed to act on our emotions and needs with no filter in place. As we mature, we learn how to conform to the elaborate social structures around us. Often this results in us overriding, or abandoning, our true selves, as we learn how to act in ways that win us approval, love, and belonging.
Belonging is a biological imperative. When we’re young and vulnerable the love of our elders directly translates into protection: our survival depends on it. But when this translates as an overpowering need to “fit in” as adults, it comes at a cost. One that has implications far beyond our individual selves.
In the drive to conform, we turn against our true selves, forcing our emotional needs and desires deep inside. Over time we become divided, two faced, with our “social selves” being the outward mask we wear to cover our true, authentic selves.
Often the parts of ourselves that we are most likely to cover up are the parts that make us uniquely us, yet that we deem unacceptable because of an “ideal” that’s been fed to us by industry, media, marketing, and popular culture our whole lives.
But the more we cover up our messy, unique shapes, voices, faces and identities, the more this upholds the status quo and perpetuates cycles of oppression.
Once these two identities are established, we tend to become further disconnected from our authentic self while fulfilling the needs of our social selves. We chase the things we think we want (in my case being a “good girl,” fitting the European standard of beauty, achieving success without ever coming across as “too ambitious”), but often overlook the things we truly long for (belly laughs, friends, the sound of wind through leaves, the feeling of deep inner peace).
At some point on this journey, we wake up to find ourselves addicted, exhausted, feeling lost, and wholly not at peace. This may manifest in our lives as broken relationships, failed careers, and feelings of purposelessness and being emotionally unmoored.
And because the oppressive message to act and be a certain way is everywhere we turn, impacting everybody on some level, when we look out on the wider world, we see a reflection of the divisiveness we feel on the inside. And so the cycle continues.
But there is a simple way to begin to right our ships: which is to begin telling the truth of who we are to ourselves.
We can start small: I don’t like how all the mindless scrolling makes me feel, and can work up to bigger, scarier truths: I’m in the wrong career, or, I put my comfort ahead of speaking out against that racist co-worker. By acknowledging what’s true for us, especially the things we think others will find unacceptable, we can begin to take actions that are in line with the person we truly are.
Once we begin the process of looking inside and being real about what we find there, we also begin to fine tune our moral compass. We’re more likely to stand up for what we know is right. We stop second guessing ourselves constantly, and at a soul level we feel free.
It takes time, and starts small, but once we begin this practice, we’ll begin to see bigger and more meaningful changes in our life—and the world we inhabit. Truth is the path back to integrity within ourselves.
Integrity and Society
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” – MLK Jr.
So what do we do when we’re trying to follow our truth, but it seems like we only have bad choices in front of us? Whether it’s what we consume (from goods and services to media), our decision to be (or not to be) active about issues in our community, or the kind of work we do, it often feels like any choice we make will bring us out of alignment with our integrity.
In our capitalist economic system, businesses are able to provide (relatively) cheap goods and services because of “externalities”—the technical term for any cost that has some kind of an impact on a third party that doesn’t have a choice in the matter.
The state of the world today—with climate disasters unfolding in greater numbers year over year, human rights violations constantly being exposed by the media, and biodiversity (and human fertility) in freefall—is shaped by these externalities.
Let’s use chocolate as an example. I really enjoy hot cocoa. It conjures fond memories and brings comfort when I need a break from reality. But then I discovered that most of the world’s cocoa is produced in West Africa, where child labor and slavery are rampant in the cocoa industry.
Not to mention the degradation of the land and the carbon footprint that are the true cost of this small moment of pleasure I experience in my home in California. My cup of cocoa hasn’t been quite so comforting since I learned these stats.
The same can be said for the majority of the choices we make as consumers today. So where do we go from here? How do we act in a way that is true to ourselves (in this example, self-care) without causing harm to others?
I could just stop eating chocolate. But how would this choice negatively impact workers at the cocoa farms, who have no other way to earn a living? I could encourage friends, family, and co-workers to only eat brands that have been verified as cruelty free? But how does this address the wider issue?
Often all we’re left with when attempting to answer these questions … is even bigger questions: Do we fight every battle? Can I really make a difference? Is it even possible to be a good person in such a broken system?
Living with integrity in a broken world
“It is in your hands to create a better world for all who live in it.” – Nelson Mandela
Seeking integrity in our own lives is one thing (whether this means owning up to a bad relationship and having the courage to move on, or calling out racism in the workplace)—but how to pay this forward in a world that’s full of bad choices? There are a few places we can at least start.
Live with less. When it comes to consumption of goods and services, the easiest way to cut down on our footprint (carbon, cruelty, or otherwise) is to simply consume less.
This raises questions about the knock-on effect of the people employed in the production and distribution of these goods—which is a whole other article in and of itself. I would argue we overemphasize GDP as an indicator of progress over happiness, health or welfare. With drastic enough reductions in consumption jobs will be lost, yes.
But degrowthers (an entire group of people dedicated to making this change a reality) believe that this shift will lead to economies becoming more “circular” (re-using and re-purposing what durable goods we have in our system already), local, and more akin to those seen in historic indigenous populations.
Know the score on your big decisions. Whether it’s grocery store staples, clothing, eating out, or travel (and especially travel), learn about the negative externalities where you spend your money, and do a quick cost/benefit analysis so you can adjust your choices accordingly.
If travel to a place is harmful to the people or ecosystem of that place, consider other places to visit or activities you can do. You will never escape all negative externalities; accepting the world we live in as it is does not imply approval of that world. But you can do your best to avoid the biggies, whatever those are for you.
Give back, get active. If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re sporting a little privilege. As you learn to live with less, also learn to give back more. Find ways to give time or money to causes that are the most important to you. And don’t forget to call out the bad actors. If you want to see your clothing more sustainably produced, call the manufacturer! Call your members of Congress, email the companies you buy from (and the ones you don’t), write op-eds, and generally have your voice be heard.
Given the state of the world, trying to close the values gap in our lives can feel demoralizing; how can my small contribution make a difference? But study after study shows that it takes only 3.5% of a population taking action to make a difference. By that rule, if we all started living with more integrity, day-to-day, we’d make an immediate impact.
As the famous Margaret Mead quote goes: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”
And it all begins with you. Every small decision we make has a ripple effect, and when we’re really honest about who we are, it is all of our nature to value peace and collaboration. Where we see the opposite, we are witnessing a misalignment of these intrinsic human values, brought about by fear—fear of otherness, fear of scarcity, fear of not being allowed to live as our true selves.
By living as your authentic self, you model to others how it’s done. Which is ultimately how we’ll find our way out of the broken systems we live in.
Danielle Russell is a writer and technologist with a background in Geology. She’s interested in all things environmental, feminism, and the arts. Danielle enjoys volunteering (currently climate advocacy) surfing, biking, live music, and books. She lives in California with her partner.