On Saturday, August 2, 1997, in the pre-dawn lightening of the coming day, I sat on a boulder at Ragged Point, the easternmost edge of Barbados, West Indies. My life was in shambles around me, mainly due to choices I had made in leading an inauthentic life. As I looked out over the ocean that stretched uninterrupted to the West Coast of Africa, I recognized that I was at a crossroads: I could choose to continue living my life in the confused, frantic way that had brought me to that moment in time, or I could choose authenticity. With the sun rising out of the water, I rose, and with outstretched arms, pledged my life to the path of authenticity.
Here is some of what I have learned about authenticity and integrity in the last eight years.
Authenticity is about how I present myself to the world. The more consistent my inner world and outer world are, the more authentic I am. Integrity is about how faithful I am to my values – the degree to which my choices, actions and words are consistent with my deepest values.
Living authentically means that the persona I present to the world is the same as the self residing inside of me. Making a choice of authenticity means consciously working to dissolve the mask I present to the world. "What you see is what you get." Living with integrity means that when I am offered the opportunity to choose an easy way inconsistent with my values, or a difficult way consistent with my values, I choose the latter.
What, then, does it take to live with authenticity and integrity?
It takes loving myself – loving all of myself, not just the "good" parts. Being human means being imperfect. Loving myself only when I am "perfect" or "good" will never cover all the possibilities of my human existence. For me, this love of my imperfect self comes from a deep trust in spirit – a trust that my life has meaning and purpose oftentimes beyond what I can currently see. While my view is incomplete and, as a result, my actions are not "perfect," there is a more expansive view and a bigger picture into which I fit. I love the current manifestation of "me," because I know that it is just a small part of something bigger. Loving me means knowing myself as a spiritual being, not just seeing myself as a material or social being.
Living with authenticity and integrity takes courage. As humans, we have created an intricate system of social values and mores. As children, we are all invited, encouraged and sometimes cajoled into adopting ways of being in the world that tell us what to look like, what to say and how to behave. There are social consequences for not following the rules – we have all felt the sting of social disapproval at some point in our lives – and the consequences can escalate from social disapproval to stigma to social death. Living with authenticity and integrity takes courage to follow your inner compass at the risk of social consequences. Lest this sound too daunting, I have found that the fellow travelers on the authentic path of living with integrity add more value and richness to my life than all that is lost through social consequences.
Self-reflection is essential to the path of authenticity and integrity. Being willing to not only review my journey through life, but to make course corrections, allows me to recognize areas where I can change and grow and more fully live into my values and ideals. To live authentically, it is not enough to do my best; it also requires analysis and change. Loving my self – faults and all – allows the self reflection process to be constructive without becoming destructive.
Finally, living an authentic life with integrity requires practice. It is not instantaneous, but encompasses a closer and closer approximation of my "truth." As I come to know myself and my place in the universe better, it becomes easier to live with authenticity and integrity. Moments still come where I am offered a choice between the "easy way out" and the more difficult path of integrity, but choosing integrity becomes a habit – and the hard choice becomes easier over time, especially when I have already experienced the rewards that follow the difficult choice.
When I made the pledge on Ragged Point, I made it in trust, knowing that much of what I built my life around would be stripped away. Following a path of authenticity and integrity in today’s world is not easy and comes with a price. Little did I know that the price I have paid has been repaid in abundance by the rich and joyous life waiting for me on the path I chose.