"My humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably with yours. We can only be human together."

–-- Desmond Tutu

On Dignity

Of many words that define good rela­tion­ships with oth­ers, such as trust, respect, care and under­stand­ing, the word dig­ni­ty often seems to have a less­er place. Yet what word bet­ter defines the need we expe­ri­ence in soci­ety today? It is almost tak­en for grant­ed that we live in a world where peo­ple can expect not to be treat­ed with dig­ni­ty, but to have their basic worth as human beings ques­tioned. On one side, this may come from a con­sumer- and object-cen­tric view of hap­pi­ness that equates mate­r­i­al suc­cess and phys­i­cal attrac­tive­ness with a sense of per­son­al wor­thi­ness, and on the oth­er we are faced with par­ti­san pol­i­tics based on con­tempt, insults and supe­ri­or­i­ty to any­one who is not like us. In such a baf­fling world of com­modi­ti­za­tion, stature com­par­i­son and bru­tal trib­al­ism, the under­ly­ing val­ue of the per­son, the human being, is not just lost; it is murdered.

In her extra­or­di­nary 2011 book, Dig­ni­ty: Its Essen­tial Role in Resolv­ing Con­flict, Don­na Hicks describes dig­ni­ty as dif­fer­ent than trust or respect. Dig­ni­ty is about treat­ing our­selves and oth­ers well and valu­ing all peo­ple based on our essen­tial human­i­ty. Her thoughts have great­ly influ­enced what I have writ­ten here.

Treat­ing oth­ers with respect, she writes, may be prob­lem­at­ic at times because it rais­es the ques­tion of whether the respect has been earned. Treat­ing all oth­ers with dig­ni­ty, by com­par­i­son, does not depend on whether oth­ers have earned respect. Respect is more an exten­sion of dig­ni­ty based on actions and also on per­son­al bias­es. So even though we might not respect some­one, we can still treat that per­son with dig­ni­ty. Hicks’ def­i­n­i­tion also means that a “dig­ni­ty vio­la­tion” occurs when­ev­er a per­son feels he or she has not been heard and val­ued in this most basic human way. A vio­la­tion is often about hav­ing one’s expe­ri­ence and per­son­al truths denied as incon­se­quen­tial by oth­ers, which leads to wound­ing and in turn to defense, sur­vival­ism, the need to strike back, and both inner and out­er wars.


Mur­al, Mis­sion Dis­trict, San Fran­cis­co (Please click to enlarge)

In a world where the notion of human beings hav­ing innate val­ue is in deep ques­tion, our work must be one of restora­tion and renew­al. We can choose to treat each oth­er well or we can cre­ate the wars that are as destruc­tive to our­selves as they are to any­one else. These wars do not have to be phys­i­cal wars, they can be any emo­tion­al war where an “us” vs. “them,” or “me” vs. “you” is involved.

Mak­ing the choice every­day to treat our­selves and oth­ers with dig­ni­ty can be some of the hard­est work we do. I know I’m fine as long as things seem to be going along well. But when I feel offend­ed it becomes a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. When I believe my dig­ni­ty has been hurt or ques­tioned by some­one else, it is not such an easy task for me to get emo­tion­al­ly unhooked and to recov­er. It still takes time, some­times a lot of it. I still must con­sult the bet­ter angels of my own char­ac­ter. I still put on a mask of every­thing being okay while inside, if I lis­ten with an open heart and become vul­ner­a­ble, a small child is cry­ing. His angry tears sweep him back­wards through every pre­vi­ous vio­la­tion of his dig­ni­ty. If you ask him, he will tell you all the sto­ries. The point is he’s alone again, won­der­ing why such things ever hap­pen, won­der­ing what his val­ue is.

I don’t think this process of “tak­ing things per­son­al­ly” is dif­fer­ent from oth­ers. I know it is not all of me. I know it is not the most fun­da­men­tal truth of who I am. But I also know when I’m not lying to myself or oth­er peo­ple that exter­nal val­i­da­tion is still very much a need for me — even though it’s not “sup­posed” to be for a spe­cial adult like myself.

And who knows, in the quest for that val­i­da­tion, how many times I’ve uncon­scious­ly vio­lat­ed oth­ers’ dig­ni­ty, too. Who knows? Who knows how much dam­age I’ve actu­al­ly done. I’ll need your feed­back to know.

Do you see how this works and what we, in this soci­ety are doing to each oth­er and to our­selves? If we don’t reclaim our own human­i­ty, then the com­modi­ti­za­tion and stature com­par­isons and the hor­ri­ble and bru­tal trib­al­ism of the times will erode us inside and out. In this work, I sug­gest that we start with the sim­ple act of trust­ing our high­er angels, mean­ing the part of our­selves that is able to stand back from the scene rather than get­ting sucked down by the under­tow of exter­nal val­i­da­tion through tribe and stature — as if either could actu­al­ly shore up our final worth.

We’ll have to do a rad­i­cal thing — to think for our­selves, with­out think­ing that think­ing for our­selves some­how makes us bet­ter or supe­ri­or. We’ll have to cash in all false humil­i­ty. We’ll have to step back from our beliefs and assump­tions about who is to blame. We’ll have to con­sult those angels every sin­gle time the feel­ing comes up that our dig­ni­ty’s been jeop­ar­dized. Because the deal is that our dig­ni­ty in the end real­ly can’t be tak­en away from us by any­one, except through our own illu­sions, and also because the sim­ple fact is that we need each oth­er. We need each oth­er for our dig­ni­ty and human­i­ty to blos­som, our best lis­ten­ing and love, insight and sup­port and feed­back in the face of tough times and our own dis­be­lief in our­selves. We need our very best help to one oth­er, and to that inner child, if we are, in fact, ever tru­ly to grow up.


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  • J. Paul Everett, IE, ret. wrote:


    I have sent for the book. How­ev­er, I think it and you are ask­ing for a lev­el of Con­scious­ness that we do not yet have. And that pre­vents the ‘treat­ing with dig­ni­ty’ par­a­digm, imho. For instance, how do I treat “with dig­ni­ty” a Islam­ic ter­ror­ist who kills peo­ple at ran­dom? Or, the ter­ror­ist who killed so many in Las Vegas? Or, the woman talk show host who opined that the peo­ple at the Las Vegas show were prob­a­bly right wing Repub­li­cans and got what they deserved?

    I have to say I am not any­where near there yet. PD Ous­pen­sky hypoth­e­sized three states of being—sleeping sleep, wak­ing sleep and Con­scious­ness. Mankind is still in a state of the first two. And does not seek to become that which they already think they are when they awak­en in the morn­ing from sleep­ing sleep. Nobody I know per­son­al­ly is Conscious.


    So, it’s a won­der­ful idea but it requires a new human being, I think.

  • Dear Paul,

    Thank you so much for reply­ing to my post. You said, “I have to say I am not any­where near there yet.” Think­ing of ter­ror­ists and fright­en­ing, unpre­dictable mass killers, man I’m not there either! 

    I do know there have been some pret­ty remark­able instances of peo­ple com­ing togeth­er after very extreme cir­cum­stances. I’m glad you ordered the book because Don­na Hicks, who does facil­i­tate in some tough inter­na­tion­al set­tings, offers some pret­ty com­pelling sto­ries, such as help­ing a British police offi­cer and IRA mem­ber — who shot the offi­cer — talk with each oth­er and begin to heal. 

    These are mov­ing accounts of what is pos­si­ble. But even more impor­tant to me, rather than focus­ing on those extreme­ly accounts is to feel what I might be able to do in my own life. Then, I think about how I still have so far to go day to day even with com­par­a­tive­ly minor slights! The ques­tions I ask myself are ones such as have I giv­en up on some­one else? Am I actu­al­ly still enact­ing some grudge that’s last­ed years? Am I still afraid to for­give? Can I get in touch with and arrest the fleet­ing images of some inter­per­son­al revenge? Because there’s still fear in me. 

    Even if I’m not ful­ly awake, can I con­tin­ue to work at wak­ing up rather than giv­ing up and going to sleep, which for me means yield­ing to old fear­ful sur­vival­ist notions and bad behav­ior that hurts me as much as it might hurt oth­ers. I want to find that place of dig­ni­ty again and again so that I’m not pulled down into the pit of use­less neg­a­tive pro­jec­tions onto oth­ers, so that I lead a good life and help oth­ers rather than con­tribute to any war, large and small that looms nearby. 

    Thank you again, Paul, for your kind com­ments and reflections!


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