Monday, February 16, 2009


Last week, a friend of mine took a tumble on an uneven sidewalk. Naturally, the first thing out of everyone's mouth was "are you hurt"? Her response was, "Only my dignity." This got me to thinking about the whole phenomenon of "dignity" vis-a-vis human behavior. And I'm trying to figure out if it has any legitimate use for us.

In the case of my friend, and most other people, it is the standard answer when we do something less than graceful. But why is that? It seems very much like we become embarrassed that we have tripped, or fallen, as if it were somehow shameful to have been unable to withstand the laws of gravity. It seems like a rueful apology for being human and I wonder why we feel that we need to do that. Why make a self-deprecating jest for having escaped potential physical damage? If someone is truly hurt then no such comment is made or expected.

All of this sent my mind exploring other situations when "dignity" is sought out or used as an excuse for our behavior. And I think it might be the case that we use it as a mask behind which we hide who we really are to both save face and protect ourselves from the opinions of others. In short, I think it is a result of some sort of fear of what other people may think of us.

I am reminded of some older movies with characters who present themselves as a "dignified" something or other, generally a clergyman or a barrister. Invariably the character, rather than seeming dignified, comes across as a pompous old poop and we tend to laugh at them for that reason. And many of us have had a relative who donned the veil of dignity and came across as absolutely no fun at all. A smile would never even cross their lips and by no means would they be seen to actually laugh. They are much too concerned with how others would perceive them, whether it be because of their vocation or perceived sense of position.

Most of us do not take it to that extreme, but many of us do worry about how we appear to others. And we cover any perceived violation of dignity as an embarrassment needing an apology of some sort. And, frequently, we are haunted by some offense against dignity after everyone else has long since forgotten all about it. I believe we need to look at it differently.

True human dignity would seem to come from the respect each of us owe each other by dint of our shared humanity, no more, no less. Accidental missteps should not be a criteria for a sense of lost dignity. Tripping and falling is decidedly not the same thing as getting drunk as a skunk and being unable to stand. It would seem that loss of dignity can only be self-imposed and worked toward diligently.

Here in Oregon, we have a law referred to as the "Death with Dignity" Act. It allows terminally ill patients the option of receiving a fatal amount of barbituates in order to circumvent the various painful and/or terrorizing effects that accompany some diseases, such as ALS or AIDS. In this case, I believe that loss of dignity refers to a situation where the person is rendered absolutely incapable of even the most basic acts of human self-determination and, perhaps, this is a more correct way to define it. I'm not at all certain that I would choose such an option for myself, but then I've never faced such a situation.

Otherwise, the search for dignity seems to be more closely linked to avoiding damage to our pride and looking good in front of others. Surely, we have other more useful things to devote our time to.

"We probably wouldn't worry about what people think of us if we could know how seldom they do." - Olin Miller.

1 comment:

Knitman said...

My biggest fear is precisely what the Death With Dignity Law would allow me to avoid. I would definitely choose it and plan to, legal or not. No way am I going to be kept alive to suffer and with no control at all. My biggest fear is being in the hands of others. I have been there , done that, never again.
On the other, I pretty agree with your assessment abotu what we owe each other and how we don't lose dignity by falling or hurting.

I ma not sure if it is lost pride or lost dignity, but it makes me think of the crap I took off people before I valued myself. That makes me feel like I had no dignity. Or is it pride?