I asked the question recently on a popular social media platform: What is Dignity, and is it endangered? Oddly enough, I think it is rare, but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. Maybe that is why I call it rare. You would think that I would have to recognize what something is in order to label it as rare, but this is part of the mystery.
I received several responses to my query, and most were thoughtful and even wise. Here is a sampling:
“being noble and worthy of respect; doing what is proper and pleasing to God without seeking praise . . .” – B.Lewis & L.Bradley
“the presence of meaningful choice to be and do what you value” – E.Lane
“living life with integrity . . .” – L.Furst & T.Huff
I have looked at Dignity from two angles: the Christian angle and the Taoist angle, and I’ve come to the same conclusion with both.
From the Christian perspective, here’s an old familiar story to set this up:
25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.
26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
So here we have “man,” wandering around naked as a jaybird, but presumably with full dignity intact. Why do I say they had dignity then? Because we see when they LOSE it . . .
6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
It was when they stepped away from how God made them, thinking they could be something better, that they felt their Dignity slip away. The funny thing is that this is exactly the opposite of what we would call dignity. I think most people would say they would be more dignified with clothes On than with clothes Off, but the dignity had less to do with clothing and more with connection to God – remaining in His image as we were created.
This would explain why some people can maintain their Dignity even the roughest of circumstances – prisons, health issues, even Hitler’s concentration camps – because they understand the source of their Dignity to be their maker rather than what they have done since Birth.
P’u, or Pooh, as Edward Bear’s friends call him.
To push the point, let’s look at Taoism. Taoists have this word, P’u. It means “the uncarved block.” It is Taoist Dignity, as it is nothing more and nothing less than what it IS. It’s dignity comes not from what man has made of it or done to it, but the simple fact that it is. Maple, or Oak, or Cherry, as it may be.
So dignity is in being what you ARE. Please don’t bend my meaning to suit your preference here – that would not be dignified. When I say “what you ARE,” that is NOT necessarily the same as what you have decided to be. The uncarved block retains its dignity by recognizing itself to be maple instead of claiming to be oak, because there is no less dignity in one wood than the other. But when the block puts on the false airs of another wood, dignity slips away, as it did for the first people in the Bible.
When I tried to be a redneck, I sacrificed some dignity. Likewise, if someone raised as a hunter/outdoorsman with no legal training tried to present himself in a courtroom as an attorney, he might perceive an absence of dignity. Its not that one is more dignified than the other. The dignity is in the TRUTH, if you can handle it.
So why is Dignity so rare? The answer might be more obvious now. Because so many people are trying to be what they believe others want. Actors need to be whatever sells. Politicians need to be whatever people vote for. Even preachers often want to be whatever draws an audience.
When we turn away from God’s design for us, we step away from our dignity. When we carve ourselves into something not originally intended, it may look better to some and sell better to some, but at the cost of Dignity.
I guess all this is why I feel sympathy for people who argue that government has denied them dignity, or is taking away their dignity. No government and no person – however kind or evil – can strip me of God’s image. No group and no individual can make an Oak into something less dignified.