Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Integrity: Hard-Won, Easily Lost

“Rigid adherence to a code of behavior; the state of being unimpaired, soundness.” Those are among the dictionary definitions for integrity.

Driving across a bridge, we want to know it’s designed for 100% integrity, that it will support our vehicles every time, not just 95% or even 99% of the time. Similarly, when Prince William and Kate Middleton exchange marriage vows Friday, they’ll be assuming mutual integrity – that they will remain faithful 100% of the time, not just “most of the time” or when there’s not a more appealing option.

One reality of integrity is how difficult it is to maintain – yet so easy to lose. You can spend a lifetime building a reputation as a person of integrity, yet a single lapse can undermine everything you’ve done. Seems unfair, but consider this:

If someone were to insist you drink either a glass of poison or a glass of your favorite beverage with only a few drops of poison in it, which would you choose? If you’re sane, you’d say, “Neither!” In a sense it’s like that with integrity. Even a seemingly small act of dishonesty or breach of ethics can forever taint an otherwise stellar life of integrity.

What brings this to mind is the plight of Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel. He’s coached the Buckeyes honorably since 2001, compiling an outstanding record on the field and earning a reputation as someone of high moral character off the field. That reputation – trust in his integrity – has come under heavy assault following revelations he withheld information that some of his players had broken NCAA rules.

No one knows for certain why Tressel, who has even written books about character and values, lied by omission – failed to report the information to those in authority. But the fact remains: His integrity has suffered serious, perhaps permanent, damage.

I’m a Tressel admirer and hope he’ll survive the current firestorm and be better for it. But just as no one can be “a little bit pregnant,” you can’t be a little bit dishonest and hope to keep your integrity intact.

That’s why I appreciate so much the timeless wisdom found in the Old Testament book of Proverbs. Among many references to the importance of integrity, it states, “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity” (Proverbs 11:3). Sobering words for us all.

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