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I read the book Dignity, by Dr. Donna Hicks, a while ago, but the title drew me in again, because I’ve been thinking about the topic a lot lately – and because my own dignity has been diminished.
In her book and in this TED talk, Dr. Hicks defines dignity as a person’s value and worth.
Her work in conflict resolution and her “Dignity Model” focuses on how vulnerable humans respond when people treat them as if they don’t matter.
Full disclosure: I’m writing this because I’ve been hurt lately by people in my life who have treated me that way.
Whatever race or class or age group we belong to, we can all suffer from being told – in various and sundry ways and by someone else’s actions or inactions – that we don’t matter. The latest and very divisive trends of “cancelling” and “ghosting” others sends that same message. Maybe I’m behind the curve, but I’ve only recently become familiar with the term “ghosting” – when someone ends communication, or a relationship, without any explanation. Unfortunately, these divisive societal trends have also crept into faith communities.
“The capacity to inflict psychological injuries upon one another in the form of dignity violations is hardwired, just like the need for connection,” wrote Hicks. “When we suffer the wounds of feeling humiliated or diminished, an overactive emotional response can have deadly consequences.” She traces some of the roots of conflict back to these dignity violations – between individuals, in business working groups, and in more consequential conflicts like civil wars. Those wounds can fester.
Alternatively, Hicks conveys the importance of demonstrating “the care and attention for yourself and others that anything of value deserves.” Don’t miss an opportunity, she adds, “to exert the power you have to remind others of who they are: invaluable, priceless and irreplaceable. Remind yourself too.”
That last statement is equally important. In her book, Hicks refers to the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, who considered suicide morally wrong “because it violated the imperative to treat not just others, but [also] ourselves as beings with inherent value and worth.”
Worth and dignity have similar meanings to me. And, in the Baha’i writings, they both have a spiritual component, as this quotation from Baha’u’llah clearly points out:
From among all created things He [God] hath singled out for His special favor the pure, the gem-like reality of man, and invested it with a unique capacity of knowing Him and of reflecting the greatness of His glory. This twofold distinction conferred upon him hath cleansed away from his heart the rust of every vain desire, and made him worthy of the vesture with which his Creator hath deigned to clothe him.
We may or may not be living up to that station, but it’s still a good reminder to try to see the divine in others.
As for “dignity,” I found that the word in the Baha’i writings is often paired with terms like courtesy, grace, loving-kindness, nobility, poise, propriety, respect, and reverence. To me, it is used to convey having a dignified bearing, or the way one conducts oneself – not aiming toward behavior that is base and frivolous, but which is honorable and high-minded. In a warning about excessive liberty, for example, Baha’u’llah wrote, it “causeth man to overstep the bounds of propriety, and to infringe on the dignity of his station.”
In the Baha’i teachings, dignity also comes up in the context of recognizing the essential humanity of “the other,” as Hicks also mentions. That theme is reflected in these two passages from Abdu’l-Baha, the first from a talk he gave in Paris and the second from his writings:
When perfect justice reigns in every country of the Eastern and Western World, then will the earth become a place of beauty. The dignity and equality of every servant of God will be acknowledged; the ideal of the solidarity of the human race, the true brotherhood of man, will be realized; and the glorious light of the Sun of Truth will illumine the souls of all men.
O peoples of the world! The Sun of Truth hath risen to illumine the whole earth, and to spiritualize the community of man. Laudable are the results and the fruits thereof, abundant the holy evidences deriving from this grace. This is mercy unalloyed and purest bounty; it is light for the world and all its peoples; it is harmony and fellowship, and love and solidarity; indeed it is compassion and unity, and the end of foreignness; it is the being at one, in complete dignity and freedom, with all on earth.
The loving, spiritual world that Abdu’l-Baha described feels like a long way off at this juncture of history, with social cohesion unraveling on so many fronts. Still, I wonder how things might be different – even in our own personal relationships on a day-to-day basis – if we consistently placed the word “dignity” right at the forefront of our consciousness.
Are we treating others with dignity or violating it? Do people in our lives feel listened to and like they matter? Do we take the time to respond kindly when someone has reached out to us? Or are we writing them off in subtle and not-so-subtle ways? Dr. Hicks wrote that accountability is one of ten essential elements of dignity, noting that everyone deserves an apology when they have been harmed. When we honor other’s dignity, she adds, we also strengthen our own.
We must now highly resolve to arise and lay hold of all those instrumentalities that promote the peace and well-being and happiness, the knowledge, culture and industry, the dignity, value and station, of the entire human race.