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Finding the Path to Your True Self

by MARTHA BECK

If you’ve ever traveled by air, you’ve probably experienced this: The plane is fully boarded. The jetway has pulled back. Then the captain’s voice crackles through the cabin. “Sorry, folks, we have a slight malfunction. We’re looking at a bit of a wait.”

Your heart sinks. How long will you be trapped in this uncomfortable seat, between a man who reeks of cologne and a teething baby? But like everyone else, you sigh and settle in. This huge machine is about to lift you five miles above the earth’s surface. No one, not even the baby, wants it taking off unless it’s in perfect structural integrity.

After thirty years as a coach and self-help writer, I’ve become obsessed with integrity. I don’t mean this in a moralizing sense. The word “integrity” comes from the Latin integer, which simply means “intact.” Having integrity means being one thing, whole and undivided. An airplane in structural integrity can fly. Without integrity, it may crash. There’s no judgment here. Just physics.

The same thing is true of our lives. When every part of us is working harmoniously with every other, we feel like bloodhounds on a scent, fascinated and absorbed by everything in our lives: work, relationships, all the objects and events that enter our experience. You may not believe the joy that comes from complete integrity is possible.

It is.

Many people go their whole lives without ever learning this. Some are massively misaligned, their lives an endless string of failures, losses, crushed dreams. Your own life is probably somewhere between disastrous and blissful. You have a vague sense of purpose, which you hope to follow someday. Though your job isn’t perfect, it’s good enough. And your relationships are fine. Mostly. Yes, there are times when something—a task, a colleague, the stress of parenting—makes you want to fake your own death and move to a hotel in the Cayman Islands. But honestly, it’s fine.

When clients tell me this, they think they’re simply accepting the sad truth that life is hard. But I hear the clank of stray bolts and loose parts, the sound of a human who has never experienced complete integrity of body, mind, heart, and soul.

Again, this isn’t a moral judgment. If you don’t feel wonderful, it doesn’t mean you’re bad or defective; I’m sure you’re trying very hard to be good. And at the deepest level, you always know what’s best for you and how to create your best life. That knowledge is coded into your very nature.

But your nature is forever colliding with a force that can tear it apart: culture.

By “culture” I mean any set of social standards that shapes the way people interact. Every group, from families to sewing circles to armies, has cultural expectations that help them cooperate. Some are explicit, like traffic laws. Others are implicit, like the assumption that when you eat at a nice restaurant you’ll use silverware instead of plunging your face directly into your food like a truffle pig.

From childhood, most of us strive to win approval and belonging in our particular culture. We act bubbly, quiet, or tough to please our families. We like whatever our friends say they like. We throw ourselves into schoolwork, babysitting, family feuds—whatever we believe will assure our place in our human group.

In this rush to conform, we often end up ignoring or overruling our genuine feelings—even intense ones, like longing or anguish. At that point, we’re divided against ourselves. We aren’t in integrity (one thing) but in duplicity (two things). Or we may try to fill many roles, living in multiplicity (many things). We abandon our true nature and become pawns of our culture.

There’s just one catch: Nature never gives up without a fight.

Whenever we lose integrity, we begin to experience a predictable set of symptoms: A sense of purposelessness, bad moods, health problems, addictions, repetitive failures in relationships or career. Like the warning lights that tell pilots a plane is malfunctioning, these are signals from our true nature, telling us we’re divided against ourselves.

The solution for all these problems is something I call the way of integrity. The word “way” can mean either a process or a path. In this book, it means both. If you don’t know what to do next, the way of integrity will provide instructions, like a recipe. If you don’t know where to go next, the way of integrity will show you the next step, like a map. If you follow the directions, you’ll end up happy. Not because this path is virtuous, but because it aligns you with reality, with truth. Your life will work for the same reason a well-built plane will fly. Not a reward. Just physics.

Whenever I travel by air, no matter what problems and delays may occur, I’m astonished by the moment the plane takes off. It blows my mind that this huge machine can throw itself into the air and keep going, safe and sound, for thousands of miles. I feel the same way when I watch people come into integrity and take flight in their own unique ways, finding purpose, love, and success. Every day, I’m stunned to realize that it worked for me, too. It all feels like a dazzling, impossible miracle.

But it’s not. It’s just physics.

So if you’re ready—even if you’re just a bit curious—please make sure your seatbelt is fastened and your emotional baggage securely stowed under the seat in front of you. The way of integrity will take you to heights of happiness you’ve never dreamed possible. You are cleared for takeoff.

Excerpted from The Way of Integrity: Finding the Path to Your True Self by Martha Beck. Copyright © 2021 Martha Beck. Excerpted by permission of The Open Field.

This excerpt was featured in the April 11, 2021 edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper publishes News and Views that Rise Above the Noise and Inspires Hearts and Minds. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.

Don’t miss Maria and Martha in conversation on IG Live tomorrow!

MARTHA BECK

Martha Beck, Ph.D., is a Harvard-trained sociologist, world-renowned coach and New York Times bestselling author. She has published nine non-fiction books, one novel, and more than 200 magazine articles. Her new book is The Way of Integrity.

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