What Is Dignity?

Let me ask you a question: when the Jewish people were stripped and herded like cattle into the gas chambers, was their dignity also stripped from them?

If your answer is yes, then I would respectfully suggest that you reconsider your ideas on what dignity really is.

On my poetry website I recently wrote a senryu, a seventeen syllable poem similar to a haiku. It goes like this:

Dignity is not

Lost by what is done to you

But by how you act.

Let me hazard a definition of what I think dignity is: holding fast to sincere, positive, life-affirming beliefs, and expressing this quality in your every thought and deed, so that it becomes a life stance and is manifest in your outward behaviour.

By this definition, dignity is much more than a mental proposition, or an 'ology' or an 'ism' that you subscribe to - it kind of defines you, it pervades your presence, and speaks to people beyond your actual words and deeds. For me this adherence must have a strongly positive and life-affirming aspect - for example, I don't think that the determined career criminal can ascribe to dignity. Dignity is often understood as a certain comportment or bearing, because it radiates out from the inner spiritual core of a person. It is very close to what we call integrity, but for me has a stronger sense of external expression. Perhaps we could see it as the outward manifestation of a person's integrity?

Moreover, rather than being torn from you by oppression and injustice, such terrible things can actually serve to highlight your dignity. Popular films and literature are full of the noble hero who manages to keep their dignity in spite of the most awful things being done to them. Witness William Wallace in Braveheart, Panther Claw's father in Apocalypto, Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, Corrie Ten Boom's father in No Hiding Place, and so on and so on. As much as Jesus' love is drawn into ultra bright focus in the terrible darkness of the crucifixion, so too, dignity can be magnified by evil.

There is also a further element of how the hero may often escape the terrible end, if only they would recant their belief or cause. The point here is that dignity holds faithfully to its fundamental truth in the face of adversity and even death, preferring to take the consequences rather than be false to itself. The hero can evade the trauma and their own destruction only if they will agree to recant. The pathos can be ramped up by 'friends' arguing seemingly sensible reasons why they should do this. Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons is faced with such a terrible choice, but holds fast to his beliefs and goes to his death with his dignity intact.

Dignity is then both a way of life and a choice. For me it is closely aligned with love and compassion, though to be fair, a person who holds a diametrically opposite belief or cause to me may well value their dignity and strength of purpose. In politics, for example, there are men and women of completely divergent views who sincerely hold to their opinions come what may. We could be cynical and say that such principled politicians don't always get elected.

Is dignity perhaps out of fashion in our modern and increasingly materialistic and shallow world? I think dignity matters as a virtue to be cultivated primarily for our own wellbeing. It is, like love, timeless. It is relevant today, no more so than in our complex society, and there are a number of topical areas where it is being bandied about. Again, like love itself, I think the word dignity is somewhat over-used, or more precisely, mis-used.

I'm thinking particularly of the issue of so-called 'right to die' and the slogan: dying with dignity.

Let me say straight out as a Catholic that I believe that all human life is sacred - that is, beyond any material valuation and deserving of our greatest efforts to protect. Life, from the moment of conception till its natural end, is utterly inviolable. It is not ours to terminate. Never, ever.

Let me also say, as someone who is relatively fit and well, that we should take a huge slice of humble pie before we start commenting on folk who are suffering from debilitating and degenerative physical conditions. I try sometimes to imagine what it must be like to be unable to jump out of bed, to be unable to fetch a drink for myself, or to depend on another person for even the most basic functions, quite apart from the pain, discomfort, fear and dread of what the future will bring. Imagine being unable to swipe a fly from your face. Imagine being unable to easily communicate with others. Imagine having no real hope of better days.

I have great compassion for someone for whom another day brings no prospect of any relief but rather further incapacity, for whom death or oblivion is preferable to another hour of living, for whom the frustration of not being able to do anything about it is the ultimate cross to have to bear.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of 'assisted dying', and the real fears of allowing a statutory right to die, I cannot sit easy with talk of helping people to 'die with dignity'. This is at best a misuse of the word, at worst a pernicious lie, used to steamroller reasoned debate on this very difficult issue. While it may be very, very hard to have someone else wipe your bottom or clean the snot out of your nose, these things do not take away your dignity. Your dignity, like your conscience, can only be impaired if you either: don't foster it in the first place, or allow it to slip from you by surrendering your principles.

Perhaps the slogan should be something like 'dying with comfort'? Quality of life matters, of course it does, and it would be disingenuous to say otherwise. Should someone whose quality of life has degenerated to an appalling degree be allowed or assisted to die in relative comfort and rapidity? I have to say as a Christian that I think there is a better way, but I'm conscious that not everyone might be able to accept this position. If I were totally paralysed but enabled by modern science to continue living, I'd like to think that I could spend my days praying - praise of God, intercession for a needy world, as well as a profound personal spiritual journey. As a believer, no one is ever useless, no life is ever past its use by date, no one is ever less worthy of the air to breathe than anyone else.

Dignity - the quality of living true to your lights, of not being two-faced in your opinions and your activities, and of having the courage to remain steadfast when others try to threaten what you value. An inner quality that no one can rip from you unless you let them.

And nothing to do with bedpans and wheelchairs...

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