Integrity (part II) – the courage to be and let be

Here is Part I (you can read them in any order)

I approach this reflection on integrity anew, from a perspective of Integrity as moral courage, inspired by my readings of Robert Solomon & Paul Tillich.*

I suggest we consider a person of Integrity as bringing into harmony three skilful means (disciplines), by which they become attuned to and integrated with a greater sense of wholeness within and around them:

1) the Courage ‘to be oneself’

2) the Courage ‘to be a part’

3) the Courage ‘to let be’… (and let go)

The first two disciplines, as courage to be oneself and also a part of something bigger than the self, speaks of a continuity and constancy in affirming one’s participation in life. The 3rd form of courage, ‘to let be’, relates to being aware of one’s own temporality and transience in a universe that is in constant flux.

Let’s start with what is meant by courage and why it can be seen as fundamental to Personal Integrity

Courage lies at the heart of the matter, quite literally as the Latin root ‘cor’ means heart.  And in Western thought, heart is seen as the seat of the emotions. You could say, ‘to take heart’ is to find encouragement. Or you could say ‘have a heart’, to show sympathy, compassion and feeling.

Courage does not align with just one emotion, but rather is an ability to gather strength from all emotions to commit to a specific action. It is not the lack of emotions such as fear, anxiety, guilt or shame that allows one to act courageously but rather the ability to act with, or in spite of, having such feelings present. There is vitality in our feelings and emotions that enable our actions, much like fast engagement strategies, that prepare and motivate the body and mind to predict the best course of action. The strength and vitality of courage lies in the gathering, not suppressing or denying of the other emotions, into a state of wholeheartedness.

That is why the Wizard of Oz (1939) could say to the Cowardly Lion, that he actually has courage, like we all do.  The Lion was simply  “a victim of disorganised thinking” confusing the feeling of fear for the a lack of bravery.  Those who risk without sensitivity or feeling to what could be lost or injured do not possess courage but can rather be considered foolhardy, impulsive and reckless in their competitive and ambitious drives. Finding the balance and harmony in an action, to qualify it as a praiseworthy virtue such as courage, takes practical wisdom. Wisdom gained via experience, reflection and dialogue for the praiseworthy action is not yours alone to judge. It is a participatory ethical process via the courage to be oneself & the courage to be a part of something bigger…

1) Integrity as courage to be oneself

This is how we affirm our lives as worth living, in spite of all our doubts, imperfections, insecurities, fears, anxiety and potential shame and embarrassment for getting it wrong.  After all, we have a limited perception and understanding from our finite point of view, and lack perfect knowledge and skill to handle every given situation. However, in spite of this we make ourselves accountable to be measured by life’s challenges, which includes not excludes the negative assessments.

This gathering of oneself into an accountable unity requires courage, to face the sea of self-doubt, negative appraisals, that may conflict with positive appraisals we’d like to have of ourselves. Being unable to give account of yourself, in rational and intuitive forms, can leave us scattered, divided and potentially unaccounted for. Integrity as defined by wholeness and a well-integrated self requires courage to gather ourselves into a state of wholeheartedness and wholemindedness. Integrity is also defined as a strong adherence to moral principles. This means you have managed to orientate yourself sufficiently based on moral/ social evaluations of what is important. This also requires courage, as a sensitivity and responsibility to the social and moral landscape that one forms a part of.

2. Integrity as the courage to be ‘a part’

Participation in life is fundamental. This means we are the kind of beings not completely self-sustaining or self-sufficient. Who we are, has in large part, been shaped by our social / physical environments and by our genes passed on from our ancestors. And our continuation as a species is intertwined with various life forms on this planet.

In order for integrity to hold any meaning, it also needs to have a meaning and value beyond our own appraisal of it. As we need the courage to make ourselves accountable, so we also need the courage to find a common-unity in our co-operative efforts to establish ‘communitas’ in our companies, nations and shared habitats, so that our shared humanity can be counted upon. This has become a great concern as our global challenges require us to find answers to universal concerns in global threats like climate change and pandemics. It is clear that our sense of communion with each other needs to extend past a human-centric one, where we also feel a part of nature and as a part of all life on this planet.

To be a participant takes courage, since we can feel guilt, shame, fear and anxiety via group membership or community, where we would often like to opt out rather than participate. We may feel shame for our politicians, fellow employees, gender, skin colour or even for just being part of the human race (judging how cruel and destructive human beings can be).

If we feel we have no part to play, we withdraw from the world, feeling diminished and lacking the courage to be. With no real part to play, we feel weak, expendable and fragmented, as we have no real place to belong, no ground to stand on and no purpose to pursue. Existential angst and anxiety may increase as life seems meaningless. It is these moments that we should not ignore the intense negative stimuli such as despair, but rather recognise its power. The energy of despair that creates this sense of hopelessness, is coming from us and our appraisal and partial understanding of the world. That same energy can be transformed in the call to gather oneself and gather community to show the courage to participate in and of life.

3. The Courage to ‘let be’

Integrity as the courage to let things be and let things go, is the ability to open up one’s grasp of reality. The hold and perspective we have on life, as individual or group, will always be a limited one. What our thoughts can hold is very limited. But it takes courage to say, ‘I don’t know’. It takes courage to listen, especially when people are looking to you for answers. The level of one’s righteous indignation is not a sign of one’s integrity. We are beings who have porous boundaries, malleable minds and the ability to shift the boundaries of our awareness and consciousness. Our very integrity is going to depend on our ability to see the incoherence, ignorance and contradictions that we cling to. Our ability to let go of pre-judgements (prejudices) is vital in being able to make better judgements later on. Our sense of goodness will be limited, and we should not let our limited ideals stand in the way of the fullness and diversity of life.

Staying silent out of fear of being rejected from the safety of the group, resigns your own courage to be oneself. Courage to be oneself without the courage to be a part of something bigger leads to a sense of meaninglessness. When we are fragmented and alone we cannot find encouragement in connection, understanding and shared purpose. This will diminish the self that we so rigidly cling to.

For now, I sense we only have an intuitive rather than a measurable relationship with what wholeness, completeness and ultimate integrity is. We need to be careful in our assessments, so that we leave enough room for open-minded dialogue to adjust and integrate our shared meanings.

Johann L Botha
Dialogue enthusiast

P. S.
I view these blog posts as conversation starters… If you care for building a community of wisdom-inquiry and participatory ethics, then consider joining our Firefly Network, where we try to keep the conversations alive. To host these type of dialogues in your organisations feel free to contact us #GSA #Integrity Dialogues

* Robert Solomon (1992), ‘Ethics and Excellence’ // Paul Tillich (1952), ‘Courage to Be’