The former Head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain once wrote about something his father said to him that made a big impact.  ‘I remember my father said to me after a holiday, ‘’I worried about you’’ and I said, ‘’Did you think I’d had an accident?’’  He said, ‘’That would have meant nothing, even if you had been killed.  I thought you had lost your integrity’’.

Integrity is about a firm adherence to a code of moral or artistic values.  It means standing up for what we know in our hearts to be right and sticking to it no matter what the cost.

Integrity in Auschwitz

Sometimes the exercise of integrity can be spectacular and can come at a massive cost.  In Auschwitz, a Polish man called Maximilian Kolbe saw an innocent family man being condemned to death by starvation.  Kolbe was a Roman Catholic priest and had no family.  He could have kept his mouth shut but instead he asked to take the man’s place.  And he did.  And he died.  Why?  Because earlier he had written these words:  ‘Noone in the world can change the truth.  What we can and should do is to seek truth and serve it when we have found it.   The real conflict is within.  Beyond armies of occupation and the […] extermination camps, two irreconcilable enemies lie in the depths of every soul.  And of what use are the victories on the battlefield if we are defeated in our innermost personal selves?’

The integrity of a rock star

Sometimes keeping one’s integrity can be less dramatic and less total but can also come at a cost.  The two stories above have a religious dimension.  I don’t know anything about the religious views, if any, of the late American rock star, Tom Petty, but I do know he possessed both artistic and moral integrity by the bucketful.  He called it purity.

Petty’s music was honest and from the heart and he knew that audiences can smell a phoney a mile off.  He was totally dedicated to music but he worked in a vast profit-based industry.  At the start of his career there were still some record executives who shared his passion for rock and roll but over the years they were replaced by people for whom marketing was everything and that caused Tom Petty great distress.  He was stunned that they couldn’t spot potential hit records when they were staring them in the face.  And he was outraged when he saw these same people trying to take advantage of his fans.  When his record label was going to increase the price of his LPs he protested loudly and managed to keep the price down for a long time.  He thought that other artists would follow his lead but they didn’t.

Similarly, he kept the prices of his concert tickets as low as he could – significantly lower than many other big name bands.  As Paul Zollo says in his book ‘Conversations with Tom Petty’, that meant that ‘even when his tours sold more tickets than others, they were never among the top-grossing ones, as heralded by the press.  It frustrated him that people didn’t know this, but not enough to charge his fans more.  They came first.’

Petty said that ‘integrity in music and art should be respected’.  As Zollo also writes, ‘Integrity always mattered to him, at a time when the concept was becoming extinct’.

Integrity and our minds

It may seem a bit strange for me to be writing about integrity on a website where the blogs tend to have a psychological dimension.  But it isn’t.  The root meaning of the word integrity is ‘whole’ or ‘complete’.  And if people lack integrity it may mean that something is missing in their psyche.  They’re not whole.

A massive and essential piece of our psychological make-up rejoices in the name of the superego.  Put simply, it’s the part of us that knows the difference between right and wrong and makes us feel guilty when we opt for the latter.  The superego is gradually formed when our parents pass on to us the moral standards of society.  But all sorts of things can go wrong with the development of the superego.  For example, parents themselves may lack a strong moral compass so their children inherit a void instead of a conscience.  Or parents may impart in their children a savage and punitive superego which makes their lives and perhaps the lives of those around them a misery.

It’s no surprise, then, that psychotherapy often works with the superego, strengthening it, softening it or otherwise modifying it as necessary.

The price of no integrity

I suspect that this therapeutic work will be needed more and more in times to come as the effects are felt of a culture – not least a political culture – where ethical norms are eroded or trampled underfoot.  But it will be a vital contribution to preventing chaos and ‘dog eat dog’.

Going back to Tom Petty, he could have made far more money than he did if he had followed the pack and not his inner voice.  But in the words of American businessman, investor and philanthropist, Henry Kravis, ‘if you don’t have integrity, you have nothing.  You can’t buy it.  You can have all the money in the world but if you are not a moral and ethical person you really have nothing.’

If that’s the case, then maybe the apparently harsh words of that father to his son with which I began – ‘[An accident] would have meant nothing even if you had been killed.  I thought you had lost your integrity’ – were not quite as harsh as they seem.  Could it be that losing one’s integrity is actually worse than losing one’s life?