The Nature of Dignity

3c53cc76cd86269509b02aec846300d8Dignity is such a tender thing, gentle and diaphanous, and so easily disturbed that our reactions when it is can be very raw. When a person fits into the narrow little cubbyhole of expectations that our culture allows us, it’s easy to forget just how quickly it can be upset, because when we maintain that focus, keep up with the Joneses, it seems nailed on like aluminum siding when in reality we’re still only just pinning it to our faces with our own expectations. Maintain your yard, or hire the neighbour kid to do it. Pay your mortgage, stock your pantry, keep up on your car payments and the ridiculously expensive bill for the 300 channels of television you get through that wire coming through the wall, and though your bank account might be lower than you like after all that it still looks good anyway. At least from the outside and that’s what counts, right?

Merriam-Webster provides three definitions for the word dignity, and this is the first:

The quality or state of being worthy, honoured, or esteemed.

The Oxford comma is theirs, by the way (tee hee).

Though it’s not mentioned specifically, there at any rate because I have seen it in other definitions, a sense of pride or self-respect can be implied if we look past the words. In the end, even if it’s just one of those magical clouds of neurons firing when the word pops in your mind, I think we all know what it is. It’s universal, it crosses cultural boundaries, and though the method and mores to achieve it may differ, none of us have to think too hard about it.

At least, that is, until it begins to slip.

The other day I read a Facebook post where a woman of good heart told of giving $5 to a man sitting on the sidewalk with a cardboard sign. I don’t care what her reasons for telling the story were, and neither should you. It was a moment of kindness, and whether she was tooting her own horn or trying to encourage others to do the same does not take away from that. It was a comment someone else made, though, that has me bringing it up.

Another person told of a woman on the street with a baby, who, when offered the chance to go into a store to choose things for the baby instead of the cash to do it on her own, reacted angrily. This could very well have been because, as the commenter assumed, she wanted to use the cash for something else, but I’m choosing to think it was because the little film of dignity she still had felt torn away, ripped off by someone she saw as judgmental and superior, and her reaction was from the pain of it.

There are two food banks I use in my city. One, operated by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul from a Catholic church whose parish, though I am not Catholic, I happen to live in, gives a box of non-perishables and a $25 food voucher usable at any local grocery store to allow you to buy the things they cannot stock. What a wonderful thing they do. Though I only felt a pointed lack of dignity the first time I went there, I will often feel it again when I redeem the voucher, but not because of why you might think; I’m okay with the voucher. I’m okay with needing it, and using it because I do. What often happens, though, is that the thin film begins to droop with the not so subtle shift in the demeanour of the cashier I hand it over to.

It doesn’t happen all the time, but enough that I’ve come to expect it, and no matter how I prepare for it, my well-worn sense of dignity flaps like a dry leaf in a stiff breeze. They often become all business. The niceties and the smiles, as if the effort is too much to maintain, are lost. I’ve become an obligation to be dealt with before getting to the actual paying customers, and they do that as quickly as they can while I slink out of the store with my tail between my legs.

When dignity begins to fall, when we can’t pay for the 300 channels anymore or the mortgaged home becomes a rented apartment, when we start steering our own expectations of ourselves away from what society expects of us, we learn to use a razor to ever so carefully peel layers from it, though it’s already a thin thing to begin with. Sometimes all that’s left is a raw, exposed pride that we shakily prop up with whatever detritus we can find, just so we can do the things we need to for basic survival.

We will make assumptions of other people, it’s part and parcel of our most fundamental human nature. Don’t fall into that ass of u and me trap, because it’s bullshit. We do, however, live in a society now that allows us the comfortable position of not having to worry too much about another group stealing the profits of our hunts or pillaging our huts, so prejudging someone else’s intent as hostile is not so big a deal anymore. We can afford to make the simple small effort to assume the best in others, at least until they prove us wrong. We have that wiggle room.

Your own personal dignity is not so solid a thing as you imagine. Mine certainly wasn’t, and I’ve been as guilty as anyone of ripping it away from another when I could’ve just tried to be a good human. It is a thing as thin and fragile as it is important to our sense of self and well-being. Perhaps not as important to you right now as keeping the front yard groomed so the neighbours don’t mutter as they peer out their windows at it, but keep in mind how thin it really is.

See it on the face of the grubby guy with the cardboard sign, because it’s still there, trust me.

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