Roger Herbert, PhD


In a scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius offers advice to his son Laertes as he sets out to study abroad in France. After counseling Laertes to be prudent, modest, affable, and thrifty, Polonius wraps up his fatherly talk with one final petition: “This above all; to thine own self be true.” Phrased less poetically, Polonius is urging his son, “Don’t compromise your integrity.”  

To appreciate Polonius’ (and Shakespeare’s) emphasis on integrity, knowing a little Latin is helpful. Integrity’s Latin root, integrare, means “to make whole.”  Making something whole suggests the possibility of parts. In the case of integrity, those parts are 1) our values and 2) our actions. This understanding of integrity suggests a basic definition: integrity is the consistent alignment of our actions with our values. Put another way, I act with integrity when the self I present to the world reflects, or at least closely resembles, my unaffected self, the person I am absent external distractions, demands, expectations, and judgments. 

By one common interpretation of integrity, Polonius is simply advising Laertes to be honest. Though not quite a synonym, honesty is certainly an essential expression of integrity. When we attempt to deceive, the facts we present to the world don’t reflect what we know to be true. We’re no longer whole persons; our lie divides us into one person who knows the truth and another who utters a falsehood.

It’s likely, however, that Shakespeare was thinking bigger than just truth-telling. Given what we know about the play, about Prince Hamlet’s struggles and Laertes’ fate, another common synonym for integrity seems closer to the mark: authenticity. We recognize and appreciate authentic people – in plays and in real life – because we trust what they say and do as faithful reflections of who they are. We don’t worry about hidden agendas because they don’t have any. We can assume they’re presenting themselves genuinely, sincerely expressing their needs, emotions, and intentions.    

Integrity, understood as authenticity, is surely a virtue worthy of Shakespeare’s pen. Still, it’s noteworthy that Polonius introduces integrity with a conspicuous qualifier: “This above all.”  Shakespeare, it seems, understood a feature of character formation that psychologist Erik Erikson would describe 360 years later: some character strengths are contingent on others, we cannot cultivate them without prerequisite virtues already well-established. Curiosity, for example, lays the foundation for creativity. Empathy enables kindness. In this regard, integrity stands out as an especially consequential character strength. Possession of some degree of integrity is a necessary condition upon which the formation and incorporation of any other character strength depends. 

How does this work?    

We’re all observers and samplers of values, general beliefs about how best to lead a flourishing human life. A child may see her parent treating a stranger considerately and learn to value kindness. When a boy realizes that he’s done nothing special to merit the heaping mound of food that sits before him on Thanksgiving Day, he may begin to understand gratitude. When a teen reads To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time, they may admire and want to emulate Atticus Finch’s compassion, bravery, and humility.  

Admiring compassion, bravery, and humility, however, is not the same as integrating these qualities as strengths of character; admiration is merely a necessary first step. Becoming compassionate, brave, and humble requires practice. This is where integrity comes in. Integrity is the taskmaster that spurs us on to doing the moral work, putting in the reps. When we act with integrity, choosing actions and words consistent with the values we esteem, our taskmaster rewards us with a sense of wellbeing, increasing the likelihood we’ll again act with integrity the next time we face that situation. At first, value/action alignment may require deliberation and intentionality. With practice, however, and with support from friends, family, counselors, teachers, and exemplars, and with more goading from our internal taskmasters, we begin to act in accordance with our values without even thinking about it. Our values, we discover, have evolved into something more durable; they have become our moral habits, integral strengths of character.  

Of course, we don’t always act with integrity. We’ve all failed to stand up to the bully or show kindness to a struggling classmate. Why? Because we’re human. Fortunately, a cultivated sense of integrity will not let us get away with this. Integrity the taskmaster alerts us to our moral missteps by troubling our sense of well-being. The psychological term for this is “cognitive dissonance,” the feeling of agitation and discord that comes from holding conflicting beliefs or attitudes. The only way to relieve this anguish, to restore wholeness, is to do something about it, to apologize to the struggling classmate, for example, or have a word with the bully.  

Being true to “thine own self” sounds easy. We all know it’s not. Many factors complicate this enterprise, but two stand out. The first is internal. We can’t align our actions with our deeply held values if we don’t know which values we deeply hold. The second is environmental. We’re often thrust into communities that don’t share our values or frustrate our attempts to explore and practice them.    

Eagle’s Next Camp addresses both challenges. We intentionally design our programs to promote exploration and discovery of character strengths.  In addition to integrity, we provide opportunities to learn about and practice kindness, curiosity, confidence, self-reliance, resilience, and hope. Importantly, however, our ultimate commitment is not to these seven character strengths per se, but to helping children become the best versions of themselves. We aim, therefore, to promote and celebrate every child’s journey to discover and exercise what psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman call “signature strengths.”  When people find their signature strengths, they feel a “yearning to act in accordance with the strength,” invigorated by the sense that “this is the real me.”  

Discovering and living into the “real me” is the essential project of integrity. Providing an environment that promotes this pursuit is the enduring and overarching goal of character education at Eagle’s Nest.