Integrity is difficult to gain, easy to lose

The New York Times

My favorite letters to the editor are ones that reflect the goodness of people. Someone expressing appreciation for assistance with a flat tire, returning a lost article, helping in an emergency or anonymously paying for a meal.

On a recent visit to New York, one of our group found a shopping bag left in the lobby of the hotel. After taking the bag to the reception desk, she reported that the staff had looked at her as if she were nuts to turn it in. She was a bit indignant that they apparently thought she would just keep it.

Many people would see the forgotten shopping bag or dropped wallet as a windfall, without thought to the person to whom it belonged. Perhaps the prevalence of such attitudes makes the honest person more valued.

Robert Burns said, “An honest man’s the noblest work of God.”

Honesty is a key component of integrity, a quality that includes others such as justice, trustworthiness and honor. It also refers to being whole, complete within itself, possessing inner strength and soundness.

For example, a bridge can have integrity. It will hold the weight for which it was designed, or more. It will withstand the constant vibration of heavy traffic as well as the effects of storms or variances of temperature without cracking.

But if the builder substituted a poorer quality of material, or was careless in making measurements, then what might happen? The bridge might eventually fail with significant damage and property loss — because the builder lacked integrity.

On occasion, I have bemoaned the discovery that someone has no sense of humor. How much sadder to conclude that the person we’re dealing with lacks integrity.

We all hear stories of dishonesty in every walk of life. The professional who charges prohibitive prices for needed services, improper billing practices, workers who steal time, employers who take advantage of their employees, rents being raised simply because the market will bear it and not because of increased costs, and shoppers who buy more than they can ever pay for.

Spencer W. Kimball, an earlier president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spoke often and eloquently about moral character and integrity. He lamented the employee who comes late and leaves early, and he would probably also add the employee playing computer games or texting on their employer’s time.

The basic fact of integrity is that no one can give it to us. We can’t inherit it or buy it. We have to earn it, and the process is a long one that allows very few second chances. Although many claim integrity, the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. It must be tested or observed, so we tend to be wary of claims of honesty until we actually see someone being honest or have enough experience with them to develop trust.

Just as a single action can wipe out a claim of integrity, so those with integrity are easily spotted. They’re honest. They do the right thing when nobody is watching. They keep their word and they keep our confidences. They repay their debts, and they clean up their own messes. They accept responsibility for their actions. They are serene because they know that the decisions they make are based on moral principles that they have made a personal commitment to honor.

Integrity isn’t an abstract quality that has no bearing in our world. President David O. McKay said the foundation of a noble character is integrity. “By this virtue the strength of a nation, as of an individual, may be judged. No nation will become great whose trusted offers will pass legislation for personal gain, who will take advantage of public office for personal preferment or to gratify vain ambition ... or be false in office to a public trust.”

We live in a world where integrity is a universally admired trait — perhaps because it seems so rare. When we discover people of integrity we treasure them and spend time with them. We want to work with them, do business with them, and befriend them.

Happily, because integrity is such a personal attribute, anyone can attain it. It doesn’t matter who we are, or our personal circumstances of wealth, belief, or national origin. We can choose to have integrity.

Glenna M. Christensen is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.