Integrity, wholeness, joy, and possibility

Integrate: combine (one thing) with another so that they become a whole.

Integral: necessary to make a whole complete; essential or fundamental.

Integrity: the state of being whole and undivided.


The most current phase of my self-excavation has led me here, to personal integrity, by which so many of the writers and speakers who I cherish mean wholeness. In order to become most yourself, you have to integrate all the parts of yourself and your experience, even the ugly parts and even your darkness.

If you had tried to explain this to me a year ago, I would have thought you were speaking Dutch. But the deeper in the descent inward I go, the more this simple truth becomes blindingly clear. Obvious, even.

The people I have known who seemed comfortable in their bodies, at home in the world, buoyant, and fearless – they were fully integrated. They hadn’t rejected or condemned parts of themselves. They weren’t selves divided. Every part of them was integral to their identity. They were whole beings.

I can see now that for the greater part of the last 15-20 years, I have been at war with myself. Every time I experienced anxiety or depression or cynicism, every time I let fear dictate my feelings and actions, resulted from rejecting pieces of who I am.

Yes, the pieces we want to reject are often not the pretty or light ones. They are often not the ones that look good in the light of day, nor are they the ones that will win us lots of social recognition or prestige. But they are important to who we are and rejecting or condemning them cracks us at the seams and distances us from our essential identity.

I’m on a serious Parker Palmer kick these days, and he offers some incisive insights on the subject, the kind I scribble in my notebook and come back to almost every morning to remind myself what I’m doing, especially when it feels like a struggle.

True self, when violated, will always resist us, sometimes at great cost, holding our lives in check until we honor its truth.

I think that’s why I felt adrift or disconnected for the past few years. I had forgotten my true self through my various rejections, and my life was held in check until I started to honor who I was, naked, without the careful facade. I thought becoming a professor would bring me happiness, but admitting that it is not life-giving for me, that I really only took comfort in the prestige of it, and that a return to my true self was necessary has been the single best evolution of my life so far.

When I threw up the white flag of surrender, it didn’t feel like a loss. It felt like an integration. It felt like coming home to myself. That’s why the more I make choices that honor my truth, the more right everything feels. When I try to explain to people why I feel “called” to certain choices (teaching, coaching, writing), I find it difficult to understand “calling” intellectually. But more and more I think it means aligning action with true self. It’s emotional. And it’s spiritual in the sense of letting myself connect with and be led by something larger than my life.

What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been! How often in the process we mask ourselves in faces that are not our own. How much dissolving and shaking of ego we must endure before we discover our deep identity — the true self within every human being that is the seed of authentic vocation.

And what a deep dive we must take into humility to do this. Dissolving and shaking of ego has given me a feeling of boundless freedom and choice and courage, but it has also meant an almost terrifying shedding of pride and composure. Sometimes I stew over the years I wasted trying desperately to be other people, and other times I rejoice that I did that because I know for sure what I tried on and how it didn’t work. Those experiments brought me closer and closer to who I really am. And I’m so thankful I’m finding this out now instead of in twenty years.

We are disabused of original giftedness in the first half of our lives. Then — if we are awake, aware, and able to admit our loss — we spend the second half trying to recover and reclaim the gift we once possessed.

I had to wake up last fall. I had to become aware of what I had done and what I was doing, and then yes, I had to admit great loss. It felt like mourning at times. Mourning for what, I’m not sure. So many things. The people I’d tried to be and realized I would never be. The people I’d wanted to be but realized I couldn’t be. The safety of living asleep and unaware, of not realizing true self and vocation. The end of the cocoon. Old patterns of struggle. But also: Lost time. Lost money. Lost relationships. Lost opportunities.

Now I’m on this path of recovery and reclamation. And my wish for every person in the world is that they, too, can recover and reclaim their original giftedness, their wholeness, their identity. The fearless and unabashed child you were, the youth who didn’t question her callings or the yearnings of her soul.

The last 15-20 years did disabuse me of a lot of things. But I am getting them back now, re-membering, integrating. What I am meant to do and who I am meant to be becomes more clear with every step I take. Things seem to fall into place now in an uncanny way. I see connections everywhere, like cosmic arrows pointing me along my path.

This is not to say that I don’t have days when I feel utterly terrified, paralyzed by the “what if’s” and the feeling of intense vulnerability, of realizing I’m standing naked in front of a crowded room. What outweighs my days of doubt and my days of terror are my days of joy. During my period of disconnection from self, I chased happiness. But a post this week on Brainpickings about the writing of Rollo May helped me see why I feel so much joy these days and why I let go of my chase. I offer some of the insights I read that helped me understand why I feel joy more frequently these days and why joy feels fuller and richer than happiness.

Happiness is a fulfillment of the past patterns, hopes, aims… Happiness is mediated, so far as we can tell, by the parasympathetic nervous system, which has to do with eating, contentment, resting, placidity. Joy is mediated by the opposing system, the sympathetic, which does not make one want to eat, but stimulates one for exploration. Happiness relaxes one; joy challenges one with new levels of experience. Happiness depends generally on one’s outer state; joy is an overflowing of inner energies and leads to awe and wonderment. Joy is a release, an opening up; it is what comes when one is able genuinely to “let go.” Happiness is associated with contentment; joy with freedom and an abundance of human spirit… Joy is new possibilities; it points toward the future. Joy is living on the razor’s edge; happiness promises satisfaction of one’s present state, a fulfillment of old longings. Joy is the thrill of new continents to explore; it is an unfolding of life.


Happiness is related to security, to being reassured, to doing things as one is used to and as our fathers did them. Joy is a revelation of what was unknown before. Happiness often ends up in a placidity on the edge of boredom. Happiness is success. But joy is stimulating, it is the discovery of new continents emerging within oneself.

Happiness is the absence of discord; joy is the welcoming of discord as the basis of higher harmonies. Happiness is finding a system of rules which solves our problems; joy is taking the risk that is necessary to break new frontiers.


Joy … follows rightly confronted despair. Joy is the experience of possibility, the consciousness of one’s freedom as one confronts one’s destiny. In this sense despair, when it is directly faced, can lead to joy. After despair, the one thing left is possibility. We all stand on the edge of life, each moment comprising that edge. Before us is only possibility. This means the future is open.

I think with integrity comes possibility. When we stop rejecting ourselves or running from ourselves or criticizing ourselves – when we just stand still and face ourselves as we are and accept it, it’s an opening up. If you can soften rather than harden, if you can gain the wisdom and insight of your anger or sadness or fear instead of tamping those feelings down – hear what those emotions are saying to you, see where they come from – you can step more fully into yourself and walk into an uncertain future with courage (and joy!).

Something fun this week: If you, like me, came home after school in the 90s and early 00s and watched Oprah at 4 p.m. with your mom, then Making Oprah is a must-listen podcast. I laughed. I cried. No joke. So good.


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