What is Dignity?

“Remember this— that there is a proper dignity and proportion to be observed in the performance of every act of life.” – Marcus Aurelius

Traffic was moving right along until suddenly it wasn’t. Cars came to a standstill just in front of me, and then the blue lights were visible. My first reaction to police lights is a little fear that there’s been an accident, but the car with the lights was moving, as was the traffic behind it — a funeral procession. Here in the south, we have always shown our respect by stopping where we are and watching the procession pass in the other direction. The doors of the large Titan 4×4 in front of me opened, and a father and son emerged, standing to pay their respects to the family and friends of whoever was traveling to be buried.  Oh, Aurelius would have been so pleased to see the proper dignity and proportion observed in this small act — I certainly was.

Has it ever happened that you were in the restroom and forgot to lock the door? When you hear the doorknob jiggle and the door starts to open, the emotion pushes the words right out of your mouth, “Wait! Someone’s in here!” Oh, that they would see you in all of your nakedness. Whether it’s a dressing room, a restroom, or a classroom, in every act of life dignity is to be observed.

What do you think of when you hear the word, “dignity”? Merriam-Webster defines dignity as, “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.” When a person is able to get through an ordeal unscathed, it’s often remarked that they were able to keep their dignity intact — meaning they didn’t make a fool of themselves.

I can suggest all day long that you not embarrass yourself, but your behavior remains your choice. What does it mean when we say we are treating another person with dignity? For me, it doesn’t mean that I respect someone, it isn’t describing how I feel about them. It’s more. It seems to me it means that I choose to treat a person (or an animal) the way they ought to be treated simply because they are a living being. Maybe it means that you don’t go out of your way to embarrass someone. Dignity is one of those things we might lose on our own and something we hope others will allow us to keep.

When a kid is trying to do something — maybe cook or figure out the best solution to a problem — we strip them of their dignity when we don’t allow them to do whatever it is for themselves. Maybe they’ll burn the food or take twice as long to come up with a solution to the problem, but when we jump in to handle it we are taking away their human right to maintain their dignity. If you see someone trying to do their job and you know you can do it better, sit quietly in that knowledge. Allowing people to speak for themselves, coming up with the words they want to say, empowers them and gives them the gift of dignity.

That is what dignity really is — a gift we allow people to keep or we choose to yank away, tearing the wrapping as we take it. When the word came to me this week, I knew it would be important that you and I grasp the depth of that gift, the power we have and the power we give to every single person.

The people I most think of are those who are living their last years — whether because of an illness at any age or just because a person has lived a very long life. No one wants to feel undignified or exposed, at any age or station. Dignity…our gift to allow someone to keep or to rip away.

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