Integrity – The Missing Piece in Health and Masculinity

As Martha Beck says in her excellent book ‘The Way of Integrity’ – “Integrity is the cure for unhappiness. Period.” I couldn’t agree more. In a sense there’s nothing else to add. On the other hand, she wrote an entire book on the matter so there must be more to say. So much in fact that it’s no accident that integrity underpins my entire approach to health, to family, and to how I relate with people and do business. Likewise, if a man is genuinely interested in getting his masculine edge back and becoming a better leader and model to all those he loves and serves, then reflecting upon his personal integrity would be incredibly valuable.  Reason being is that nothing works as well as it does when in full integrity. This stands true as much for human beings and their health and function as it does for machinery, science and tech, systems and organizations… everything.

Take a car for example and one’s reliance on it to get from point A to point B. Which part of the vehicle would be most acceptable in way of malfunction… the engine? the transmission? the starter? Perhaps a missing windshield, tire, or steering wheel? The answer is clearly none of these – you really wouldn’t want any of these things missing or out of order when preparing to drive. Same goes for people and lives lived yet we rarely take note of our own missing, compromised, or trivialized parts, aspects, and dimensions. We rarely question if our experience or expectations are out of sync, balance, or alignment. Most folks for example readily equate health with sleep, nutrition, and exercise, but qualities such as emotional awareness, and spiritual connection are rarely acknowledged and fostered for that purpose. Similarly, there’s a lot more to mental health – to mental integrity – than merely being free of dementia, anxiety, or depression. And it doesn’t help any that the word itself – integrity – has taken on a bit of a moralistic and slightly judgmental nuance in modern English which only contributes to obscurity.

Integrity 101

Having integrity is often and very simply understood as being honest. This is true in a basic sense but leaving it at honesty really fails to capture the quality of the word as it relates to people and behavior. Integrity comes from the Latin word ‘integer’ which means intact, whole, and complete. Expanding on that, having integrity would then mean to be whole and complete – to be your whole self – all of yourself rather than just a part of yourself. So in addition to honesty, integrity must also imply consistency. Because in being whole and complete there is nothing reserved since everything is included. This character consistency means you bring the same ‘you’ wherever you go, regardless the circumstance, regardless who you’re with. There is no ‘work you’, no ‘family you’, no ‘social you’ – you are simply all of you, all of the time.

Ironically, it’s not easy to be yourself. And definitely not consistently. We can thank culture for this truly unfortunate and yet fascinating paradox. Culture of course being the social standards that shape the way we think and act. In our understandable rush to conform and be accepted by family, friends, peers, and strangers alike, we often end up ignoring or over-ruling our own feelings and motives and thus behaving in ways that are inconsistent with our true nature. Do this often enough and in time you will start to lose yourself along with your health and zest for life. In general, people vastly underestimate the extent to which they compromise themselves in order to serve culture. Culture can be a beautiful thing but it is also incredibly threatening and problematic when it comes to maintaining personal integrity.

But when you manage to be as consistent in character as possible, there is far less need to compartmentalize life into categories because there is far less need to continuously rationalize inconsistent decisions and behaviors that are contrary to your intuition and better and more accurate judgement. There’s no need to keep track of the truth… it merely follows you.  Incidentally, men tend to be pro at compartmentalizing their lives. Us dudes have gotten so good at justifying questionable decisions that most of the time we don’t even realize we’re doing it. We don’t realize we are actually trying – albeit in vain – to maintain integrity through conscious or unconscious deceit. And although our intentions are usually noble, any form of pretense typically leads to dubious results. Consistency of character however makes a man dependable and predictable – it makes him a full-time man instead of a part-time man.

Honesty, Truth, and Trust

By all means though, let’s definitely keep honesty in mind when considering integrity. If health and fulfillment are of interest then you’ll need to be committed to the truth at all costs. Sometimes the costs are steep. But if there is no truth, there is no peace, and where there is no peace there will be stress and suffering. Again however, being committed to truth – to integrity – is no easy task. When Jack Nicholson from the movie ‘A Few Good Men’ said ‘YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH’ he was talking to all of us if not men in particular. It’s infinitely easier to skirt and negate the truth than it is to face it squarely… to pretend it doesn’t matter when in fact it’s of tremendous and cumulative importance.

Furthermore, ‘truth’ can be a terribly tricky matter since most everyone, including ourselves, has an agenda and very limited perspectives in way of others and the workings of the universe. Feelings, emotions, motives, and misperceptions can all significantly distort what is real and true. And while there may be immense benefit from behaving according to best intentions, the usual ‘cognitive self’ that we readily depend upon cannot always be used as a reliable counselor of what is truly appropriate in many situations. This is why some sort of external and objective standard is critical in helping establish truth… or at least in helping point towards it. Some examples of this external support can include written or unwritten laws, family or societal expectations, loved ones or mentors that we count on for inspiration, and of course higher powers such as God, Jesus, or the Universe. And yet, it still ultimately comes down to personally choosing these supports consciously and wisely. The point is that sometimes truth and integrity are sourced from within and sometimes from without.

Healthy Masculinity

Every time that truth and integrity take a break, so does healthy masculinity, – a masculinity rooted in reality and respect rather than in control, image, and accomplishment. Much of a man’s confusion, regret, and insecurity as it relates to himself and his life develops with overidentifying with external pursuits and experiences all the while neglecting his internal truth. Since a great deal of men don’t overly bother with internal matters – with matters such as self-awareness, feelings/emotions, how they show up etc- they inadvertently compromise their integrity. Then, the only identity they resonate with is the one that speaks of what he does, who he does, and how he does them. It’s a very typical and understandable way of looking at things, particularly from a man’s point of view when you consider the many expectation and performance pressures that he routinely endures due to culture and stereotype. The huge irony however is that external identities and functions are ridiculously cheap and common, while a man’s unique internal essence is completely extraordinary.

Operating primarily from this external paradigm causes a man to get caught up in what others think and believe about him. He essentially ends up forsaking his own credibility, sensibility, and responsibility all in the name of others’ opinions, expectations, and the status quo. This is the epitome of misplacing one’s enormous value and self-worth and it’s truly tragic considering a man’s role in family and society. Tragic also because this common way of operating makes a man’s self-respect and his fundamental respect of others conditional – starting with his children and family. Love and acceptance and the safety and stability they provide become conditional. The kids grow up and the cycle repeats. There’s a lot of room for improvement here.   

Health and Integrity

As for true and sustainable physical and mental health, they are not possible without integrity because health and integrity absolutely coexist – they are interconnected. For one, they basically mean the same thing. Like integrity, the very word ‘health’ means and originates from ‘wholeness’… of being ‘sound and true’. It would be difficult for the two to get much closer in actual meaning. Definitions aside, when any form of prolonged deceit becomes the norm, it’s only a matter of time before our life starts to disintegrate. Suffering essentially begins the moment we start believing and upholding falsehoods. Emotionally we might become anxious, or depressed, or numb and irritable, all of which take a toll on relationships. Physically, our physiology, immune system, and constitution may weaken, our strength and energy might flatten. Mentally, we lose clarity, focus, ambition and drive.

That’s stating it all very briefly but the takeaway is that everything and everyone around us is negatively affected when integrity comes to be in short supply. And the more divided we become the more things hurt and suck. Integrity must exist for health to be possible because that’s what health depends upon, that’s what health is. As it were, the default is to neglect the large majority of our very existence while subscribing to others’ ideas and agendas. Then we’re left trying to soothe our split and hurting selves by checking out through food, drugs, and entertainment, making it far easier for stress and disease to prevail.

Whether man or woman, the split from integrity is almost always unconscious and it isn’t a sign that anyone is bad. All it means is that false assumptions have been internalized and usually in an effort to be good. Isn’t it interesting that so often things go wayward when we try to be good? It’s just one more example of how we often get in our own way… how our own best interests are anything but clear. Nevertheless, the pursuit and expression of integrity should never stop… can never stop. Truth is too mysterious, too enormous, too valuable to stop. The truth is also challenging much like developing the willingness and courage towards restoring it.

The effort however is well worth it because everything and everyone we encounter and that we are responsible to is affected by the health and continuity of our physical, mental, and spiritual integrity. The kind of mark that we leave upon the world – and make no mistake a mark will be left – will be nothing less than a reflection of our commitment to truth over time. How our kids think and function in the world and the safety/security that our woman or partner experiences are unconditionally connected to our daily examples and patterns. Which is all to say that if you’re serious about fixing your health and exploring your potential as a man, then the most effective and reliable way to do that is through integrity. Yes, nutrition and exercise matter tremendously, but without a consistent emphasis on integrity their effect and sustainability will be limited at best.

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Kai Makowski

Kai Makowski is a registered holistic nutritionist, certified personal trainer, and men’s lifestyle coach who ardently believes in the ironclad promise of authentic masculine health and integrity. He lives in rural Manitoba, Canada, with his wife and their two sons.

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