Martha Beck’s book The Way of Integrity: Finding the Path to Your True Self illustrates how honesty and freeing ourselves from cultural expectations opens up our lives to our true nature. The book is structured around Dante’s The Divine Comedy, using Dante’s journey down into the Inferno, up the Mount of Purgatory, and eventual rise to Paradise as metaphors for the path to healing that each of us must go through on our journey toward personal peace.
At the beginning of Inferno, Dante awakens to find himself in the dark wood of error, a place of sin, where he has found himself due to a series of wrong turns over a long period of time. Beck says that she too found herself in a dark wood, a place in her life that was far away from her true self, her nature, and the things she needed most.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” Culture encourages us away from who we really are, in an effort toward social consistency. For Beck, the combination of her Mormon upbringing and the intellectual world of Harvard, where she went to school, swept her away from authenticity to a life that felt like a lie. Beck recommends correcting course with one-degree turns toward our true nature.
How? Stop lying, she says, to ourselves and others.
Beck made a commitment, upon recognizing she was in the dark wood of error, to spend a year of only telling the truth. She recommends readers take care, this challenge is not for the faint of heart. It was the potential to change a persons entire life, as it did hers. A commitment to honesty starts with little things, like saying “I’m having a terrible day”, when someone asks instead of a stock response: “I’m good, thanks” and builds to monitoring our hidden truths like, “I want to live in Paris” instead of ignoring that the town you’ve lived in your whole life isn’t where you want to be. These are my fictional examples, but Beck has a myriad of experiences she shares from her own life and her clients.
In The Divine Comedy, Dante makes the transition from hell to purgatory by diving into the depths of hell, literally plunging into an icy lake and Lucifer’s body. Uncovering our deepest lies is the only way out of the inferno. “For all of us, passing the center of Earth means connecting very directly with that core lie: I’m alone. This is the chain that binds you to your deepest suffering,” says Beck.
The book instructs to move into our power by questioning our own thoughts, asking if they are absolutely true or lies we tell ourselves out of fear.
The Purgatory section of the book is about working through the errors of our lives that divide us from personal truth once we start getting honest with ourselves and uncovering our true desires, but change doesn’t come easily, it takes small steps, one-degree turns toward a richer life. “But real relief –the sort that brings us back to the person we are meant to be–comes only when we embrace our true natures. Once we commit to being our selves in every word and action, we emanate the love that is our essence.”
An important step towards this commitment to ourselves is shifting away from a victim mindset to that of “creator”. Beck writes, “So, while we may be genuinely victimized, we never have to accept “victim” as an identity. We have the freedom to respond to every situation with creative thought or action.”
Beck uses a football player being tackled during a game as an analogy, “He does his best to avoid being tackled, but if it happens, he gets back up and takes it in stride. This is the energy of power–not invulnerability, but power.” Everyone is vulnerable to pain, but power comes from rising and continuing down the path of truth.
The Way of Integrity warns that not all choices and changes in our lives will be small. Choosing integrity means facing bigger and bigger lies. For herself, it meant quitting the Mormon church and her marriage.
Finally, Beck follows Dante to the top of Mount Purgatory. Before making his way into Paradise, Dante is dunked twice in a river, on two different sides. “The first side makes him forget everything he’s ever done wrong, while the second makes him remember everything he’s ever done right.”
For Beck, Paradise is awakening. It’s the awe of peace along with a connection to the world that can only be found through personal truth.