I’ve never read The Divine Comedy otherwise known as Dante’s Inferno. From what I’ve heard it is difficult to understand or make much sense of, so why bother? That was until I read an interpretation offered by author Martha Beck in her soon to be published book, The Way of Integrity. While I’m unlikely to drop everything and rush out to get a copy of Dante’s classic, I have come to appreciate the metaphorical ideas and mystical inspiration that it contains. But perhaps more important, Beck uses it as a road map for meeting our inner selves and following a path to inner wholeness and ultimate wellbeing. And who couldn’t use a bit (or a lot) of that these days?
So what is the path to integrity and how could it possibly lead us to the “paradise” that Dante constantly refers to in his masterpiece? According to Beck, the word integrity comes from a Latin word meaning “intact.” In other words, if something is whole, undivided, congruent with every part of itself so that it works harmoniously toward wholeness, it is acting in integrity. And the largest hinderance to that? Our culture. Beck says, “Humans create elaborate cultures because we are dependent upon the goodwill of others from the moment we are born.” Unfortunately in our rush to be accepted, loved and fit in, we usually ignore or overrule our true selves and promptly forget who we are.
It’s easy to see how we all end up with divided and often false selves when we consider how from an early age we are conditioned to fit into our tribes. The more we want to be safe and belong, the more likely we are to learn every subtlety we can to be accepted. We smile as expected, go to school or church as expected, learn gender appropriate activities as educated, relate to others as taught, and so on and on. The problem is, there is something deep inside us (no matter how repressed) that knows when something isn’t in alignment. Many of us are not acting as our true selves and are living a lie.
Now obviously there are a few outliers among us. Some people refused the conditioning and have become rebels. A few of those even became great leaders because of it. But the vast majority of us accept that the tradeoff for belonging and acceptance is worth the sacrifice of our true nature. However, at some point our true self usually demands to be heard. At that point, we may find ourselves heading into the Inferno that Dante describes. How do we know we are there? The suffering becomes unbearable.
I won’t even begin to explain the entire story that Beck uses to illustrate both going through hell and the eventual rise to paradise that comes from following a path to integrity. But I will say that one of the most powerful examples of the decent and then rise comes from Beck’s own life story. When she found herself living a life that everyone else thought was exemplary (devoted wife, mother, three college degrees, college professorship, and more) and was both physically and mentally suffering, she gradually walked away from it all as she learned to both listen, and then follow her true nature. How? By following a way of full integrity.
What I see as most problematic is that most of us don’t have the dramatic example that practically forced Beck to start and then continue looking within. Most of us lead fairly comfortable and reasonably happy lives, so why stir all that up? Surely the little lies I live and tell myself and others aren’t that big a deal? Yet, Beck makes a very compelling case for the advantages of living the sort of life where you are completely in congruence with what you feel, what you think, what you say and what you do. And maybe it is time for more of us to do the same? Can you even imagine a world where we all did that?
How do you do it? You start by questioning all the beliefs that you hold from your culture (family, church, education, etc.). More importantly you begin examining any beliefs behind your suffering or unhappiness to see if they are actually true for you, regardless of how deeply held they are by others. Beck, in similar ways to teacher Byron Katie, is convinced that most of our unhappiness or suffering comes from believing things that simply are not true.
The next thing you do is stop lying. Beck actually started an “integrity cleanse” where she vowed not to lie for an entire year. At first she just stopped any lies to others until she realized that often silence is an equally powerful lie. She claims that the more honest you are with yourself and others, the more you reveal some of those erroneous foundational beliefs underneath that are usually hidden. Ask yourself, “Where are your flinch areas? Where are your ‘Do not mention zones?’” Stopping the obvious lies is fairly easy for most of us, it’s those “white lies” we often tell to avoid making waves or to not “hurt” others. Yet Beck says, “Any lie, even an unconscious one, splits us from integrity.”
While Beck went cold-turkey with lying to herself and others, she actually recommends that most of us start with the intention to make small degree changes. Then slowly, one small change at a time, our lives will be transformed. And the eventual payoff?
“Here it is: You are infinitely worthy. You are infinitely precious. You have always been enough. There is no place you don’t belong. You are lovable. You’re a loved. You are love.”
Of course it does sound a bit hard to believe. Simply stop lying and you will find paradise on Earth? Yet after finishing Beck’s book and doing (some) of her exercises, I realized how closely her ideas resonated with my own inner truth. Best of all, it feels good to accept the beauty of your true self. Not in a “lying to yourself to numb the pain” way, but in an open-minded, open-hearted way that believes in the goodness of others and the goodness of the world. So, while I won’t go all-in like Beck, I will do my best. After all, with a WOTY (Word-Of-The-Year) like trust, and the fact that I consider the journey of Wholeness to be the most exciting journey of all—why wouldn’t I be willing?
Of course Beck doesn’t suggest we blindly believe what she, me or others tell us that we should believe. With matters so important, always run them by your true nature—that Self deep, deep, deep inside, and see what you discover. Let’s just remember, the SMART perspective is one that remains open and honest about our growth, our possibilities and our hope for a better tomorrow.
Martha Beck, PhD, 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 latest book, The Way of Integrity—Finding the Path To Your True Self is set to publish on April 13, 2021. I received a review copy in order to do this review. You can preorder it here: Amazon