My husband and I spent a weekend in Dublin earlier this month. We saw The Weir, an Irish play set in a small Irish town, had a backstage tour of the Abbey Theatre, learned Irish history from Irish people, went to a red-velvet-walled speakeasy, had afternoon tea, and spent a day near the Martello Tower where James Joyce wrote the first chapter of Ulysses. And so many other things in a short time…
What is dignity?
Dignity is our inherent worth, our value…and that of others. Dignity is something with which we are all born. It is our birthright. We don’t have to earn it, grow into it, invest in it, or hustle for it. Dignity is not a hand-me-down. It is not scarce. Dignity is essential–”as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen,” wrote Laura Hillenbrand in her book Unbroken.
Dignity is also characterized by its vulnerability to injury. Our dignity and that of others can be so easily violated. Anything that makes us feel lesser than, not valued, is a violation of our dignity.
In her book, Dignity, Donna Hicks, PhD makes a case that wars start when the dignity of a person or a people is violated. While most of us do not engage in war, we do face daily battles–experiencing conflict in families, at school, at work, in places of worship, in communities, among political factions, and in our world.
The essential elements of dignity
There are 10 elements of dignity: acceptance of identity, inclusion, safety, acknowledgement of others’ experiences and stories, recognition of other people’s contributions, fairness, being given the benefit of the doubt, understanding, autonomy (what Hicks calls independence), and accountability, in which we take responsibility for our actions.
When someone corrects your pronunciation, when someone tells you that they know “exactly how you feel” without really listening, when someone touches you in a way that makes you uncomfortable (usually the small of the back) and then claims that you are “overly sensitive,” when people engage in negative gossip, when someone senior to you at work repeatedly teases you–all of these actions and inactions violate dignity. When entire groups of people are systematically marginalized without accountability, when people are paid a wage that doesn’t allow them to live while CEOs are living extravagantly…. all of these are violations of dignity.
How can preserving dignity lead to healing?
In my experience working with my own hurt and that of others’, the first steps towards healing are telling your story and naming your hurt. The vocabulary of dignity can help us name those specific elements of dignity that were bruised or broken. When we are ready, wordless rage can be put into words using the elements of dignity. For example, when someone has humiliated you, you can name this as a lack of acceptance of your identity, as exclusion, or lack of safety, understanding, or autonomy (whichever seems most fitting, remembering that more than one element of dignity may be swept up in one fell swoop). I’ve also found that understanding the anatomy of dignity jump starts my ability to see my role in what happened. This has helped me avoid ruminating.
How do we respond when dignity is violated?
We are hardwired to protect ourselves and to act out against those who have hurt us. Our impulses are to pay forward the small and massive indignities as a protest against what has happened to us. Paradoxically, we can lose our dignity in an attempt to reclaim it. Even righteous indignation, in which I specialize, violates dignity because it can impede our taking accountability for the part we may have played.
To revolt is a natural tendency of life. Even a worm turns against the foot that crushes it. In general, the vitality and relative dignity of an animal can be measured by the intensity of its instinct to revolt.
Reclamation of dignity
The second way in which understanding dignity and its violations is helpful is that we can decide how to move forward with dignity. I can, for example, ask myself how I want to handle a difficult conversation, relationship, or work situation in a way that will preserve my dignity and that of others. I can advocate for people who have less power leveraging the importance of dignity for all beings. As a leader, I can support the dignity of the people around me and, equally important, understand unproductive actions as possibly having arisen from breaches of dignity. Leading in a way that honors dignity is transformative for people and for organizations.
When we respond to dignity by violating dignity, we amplify conflict rather than preserving dignity. If you’ve been hurt and are not ready to forgive, reclaiming your dignity is an alternative to forgiveness, sort of a placeholder.
What about you?
Can you think of a time when your dignity was violated? Harder question: can you think of a time you violated someone else’s dignity or your own?
What would it make possible to name your pain in terms of the elements of dignity? What would it make possible if you could avoid the very natural instincts to violate the dignity of another.
I have pretty much violated every element of dignity–my own or someone else’s–at some point in my life. But we learn, we make amends (where it is safe and won’t cause further harm), we learn how to set boundaries more clearly and make decisions more easily. And we feel more connected and more human when our worth, our value, and that of others is honored.