Integrity is a funny word. Often times it is misused, or added for grandeur in a story, or even to make a poor choice seem like a heroic, even moral one. To understand integrity is not just to understand the dictionary’s version, but it is to have your own meaning, your own relation to it.
My freshman year was an interesting time. Out of the safety net of middle school, launched into the vast, seemingly turbulent ocean that is high school, I was terrified. I knew who I wanted to be--honest, kind, caring and empathetic--but I didn’t know how to get there. I didn’t know how to be that person. I tried on different shoes, hanging out with different groups of people, trying to assimilate myself to their groups. I used their words, I dressed like them, I acted like them. And in the process of trying to find what I should be, I lost sight of who I already was in trying to make myself into something wholly different.
It wasn’t until the summer between my sophomore and junior years that I found myself again, while also finding my own meaning to the word integrity. My high school offers a unique opportunity to rising juniors and seniors. Each summer, usually the first or second week after school lets out, a group of boys and girls travels to a small town in Pennsylvania where the annual Outdoor Odyssey Leadership Academy is held. Run by a former Marine, the camp tests each attendee mentally, physically and emotionally. I had signed up, nervous about what awaited me up at the camp. I had heard stories--some good, some bad, some truly terrifying. But, the ticket had been booked, and I was up heading to camp before I knew it.
The first day was hard, the second day, even harder. Obstacle courses with seemingly mountainous heights, mud, harnesses and not to mention copious amounts of tears on my part, had drained me emotionally. I was tired, irate, and I frankly just wanted to go home, cuddle with my dog, and sleep for hours. The intervention came that night. The man who runs the camp, affectionately called “The General”, spoke to us. He talked about a theory called the “Baskin-Robins” theory. Baskin-Robins, the wonderful ice cream company usually paired with Dunkin Donuts, has 31 amazing flavors of ice cream. The General said that there are over 31 personality attributes we have as people--but he said no matter what combination of 31 we have, each of us as Americans, and most importantly as human beings should have is integrity.
I had heard the word before--in commercials, on the radio, even using it papers. But I didn’t have a personal connection with it--I had never had to think about what it meant, how to apply it. So hearing the General give it meaning, I was interested. His story was simple: a poor man is on the road--he sees money that he could steal. He could steal the money, take it for himself, buy a warm meal, a hotel room. But the man doesn’t take the money. The man knows that the money is someone else’s. The money could be for someone in a situation similar to his, or possibly worse than his.
The story struck a chord within me, but the true test would come three days later during an event known as “The Crucible” (a lovely title, isn’t it?). The Crucible was a test of everything we had done during the week--the final test. It was an eight hour day, filled with mud, exhaustion and lots of fear facing--at one point, there was even fire. Now, the obstacle course was one of our last events. The obstacle course had been a point of fear for me all week. In particular, the rope climb was where I struggled. The first day I had fallen, somehow landing delicately on my feet, but it had terrified me.
My counselor looked to me, smiling reassuringly, saying, “If you don’t want to, you don’t have to.” But I wanted to. I wanted to do it with them, but I was so scared. Various scenarios ran through my mind, each more dramatic than the last. What if I fall, I thought. What if I break my leg, never allowing me to walk again? (note: I was fifteen and everything was the be-all-end-all of life). But I knew the rules--I had to finish everything, including this, to pass, for my team, the girls I had bled and cried with all week. I could lie, and no one but my team would know, but my integrity would forever be in question. And in that moment, between deep breaths, I came to find my own definition of integrity.
Integrity wasn’t just the ability to be truthful, honest and caring, integrity was looking fear in the face, looking anything unfavorable in the face, and doing the right thing anyway. It was standing up for what was right, no matter the level of difficulty. It was being true when things got tough. It meant not quitting when people depended on you.
And so, with all the gumption I could muster, I climbed the rope and climbed back down in record time. And through the cheers given to me by my teammates, and through the elation and pride of my counselors, I knew in my heart that integrity now had a permanent residence not only there, but in my actions as well.