Dignity: formal reserve or seriousness of manner — Merriam-Webster

I got my first paper route in 7th grade. For years prior, I’d helped my brothers deliver papers on their routes, crawling out of bed in the dark of a Sunday morning, helping stuff inserts and piling into the family station wagon on the way to our appointed rounds.

illustration: James O'Brien

It was a big deal to finally get my own route with the Quincy Herald-Whig. The money was good, the customers were nearby and the drop-off point for the neighborhood’s carriers was on the sidewalk directly across the street from my house.

As I stood waiting for papers on my first day, I took stock of my fellow carriers. Not only were they older than I was, they were much handier with profanity and surprisingly well-versed in the human reproductive process. Anxious to eavesdrop, I did my best to remain unnoticed. For a few days I was all but invisible, not even earning a greeting when I approached, then sidled up to learn.

Then one day it happened. The truck arrived, the driver tossed our bundles from the tailgate and rumbled away. As I bent down to retrieve my 98 papers from the sidewalk, I heard it before I felt it: I’d been spat upon, squarely on the back of my head. The knot of paperboys laughed as I looked up and made eye contact with the ringleader, who smiled and raised his eyebrows, inviting a reaction.

I chose dignity.

My reaction was based on my prevailing definition of dignity — stoicism — woven together from lessons learned in my home and on the parochial school playground: Confrontations with superior power were best met with passive silence and purposeful exit. Any other approach could invite a burst of violence.

Determined to show no emotion, I grabbed my bundle by the plastic strap and fought the urge to sprint as I headed away. That walk across Chestnut Street seemed to take forever as the laughter continued and the cooling gob of saliva crept down my neck and onto my back.

Such dignity wasn’t just a survival tool in my life; it was classy, too. I grew up watching the great WWII movies of the 1970s with my father, impressed by the coolheaded British characters and their instantly recognizable stiff upper lip. There was the SAS officer in A Bridge Too Far, unflappable when outnumbered, responding to a German invitation to discuss surrender with the claim, “We haven’t the proper facilities to take you all prisoner.” And, of course, there was POW Alec Guinness gracefully bearing up under the sadistic treatment of his captors in The Bridge on the River Kwai.

The British reputation for a stiff upper lip was most boldly on display in history class when I learned of Londoners’ stoic response to the German Blitz as they endured endless nighttime bombing with nary a complaint. (I’m sure some people complained when their homes were destroyed or loved ones vaporized by whistling Nazi iron, but they had the good manners to do so far from the all-seeing eye of a newsreel camera.)

Their example convinced me that maintaining restraint in the face of superior power was a power unto itself. A stone-faced response to abuse robbed power from the abuser. Denying the sadist the pleasure of a wince or grimace became a kind of weapon. So I committed to act in kind, emulating the hero of William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus”:

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

My young mind connected this defiant dignity to images of Martin Luther King Jr. crossing the Selma Bridge, Jackie Robinson circling the bases under a hail of epithets, and Jesus himself quietly enduring the savagery of the Roman guard. Given my natural rage response to pain, be it a schoolyard punch or my father’s belt, I marveled at their self-control and vowed to gain power by adopting it.

My rock-ribbed stoicism carried me through the valley of the shadow of grade school as I brought what I considered dignity to any confrontation. I remember walking in silence, staring straight ahead as an upperclassman mocked my family for playing guitar at Mass, refusing to give him the satisfaction of a reaction. I nodded knowingly as my football coaches chided skill position players caught celebrating in the end zone, barking, “Show a little dignity and act like you’ve been there before.”

Dignity: the quality or state of being worthy — Merriam-Webster

As high school dawned, my definition of dignity began to shift from defensive stoicism to something rooted in the Latin I’d discovered in the dictionary: dignus, being of worth. In that season when my physical maturity outpaced my emotional growth, my self-esteem blossomed as I got attention for gifts that were uniquely suited for high school notoriety.

I could do a few things well: make sidelong comments that could crack teachers up in mid-lesson, remember endless trivia and perform onstage. Everything was a joke to me, as I acted like the legendary Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, when he glibly turned the phrase “dignity, always dignity” and added a pratfall.

My mastery of trivia developed during our family’s mandatory encyclopedia reading sessions. These began shortly after a door-to-door salesman guilted my father into paying retail for the full Encyclopaedia Britannica. He would roll into the living room, punch the “off” button on the TV and declare it time to read. “I paid good money for those encyclopedias,” he announced, “and you’re not only going to use them, you’re going to give an oral report on what you read.” My brothers and I would respond by choosing an unsavory topic like exotic diseases (preferably venereal) and watch his scowl deepen as we described, from memory, the penicillin-resistant symptoms of various STDs. I won when he, too, cracked and laughed along with us.

Besides torturing our well-meaning father, those sessions benefited me with a growing repository of trivia that made me seem smarter than I was and helped win the regard of various teachers. My grades were fine, but I did especially well on my high school’s Quiz Bowl team and held my own in classroom discussions and standardized tests. In aggregate, they made me feel pretty good about myself . . . probably too good.

illustration: James O'Brien

My inflated sense of self-worth warped my dignity from what was once defensive stoicism into something more offensive. By the time I graduated from high school, my definition of dignity needed an adjustment and Notre Dame provided it.

I’d spent the summer before my freshman year getting ready for the NROTC-required swim test, treading water in the deepest available section of our hometown pool, roughly 6 feet deep. Having mastered this survival skill in water just 4 inches deeper than my height and fortified with my inflated self-worth, I arrived on campus a week before most of my class, ready to dominate that test.

Things sank in a hurry when I discovered conditions far different from the placid waters in which I’d trained. Not only was the water in the Rockne Memorial Pool 14 feet deep, it was full of fellow midshipmen splashing around and sending choking waves of water up my nose.

I vowed to tough it out, but a few more waves and a growing crowd in the pool caused my survival instinct to kick in and I swam to the ladder in a panic. My tension eased slightly as I caught sight of a wiry, bespectacled upperclassman clad in Marine Corps red standing above me, extending a helping hand. Before I could choke out a thank you, he barked, “You’re a disgrace,” and left me poolside in a sodden heap. When others succumbed to the conditions, I heard him repeat his damning phrase as a small knot of similarly humbled midshipmen formed around me.

Fortunately, misery actually does love company, and I bonded with my fellow failures in University swim classes. Throughout that first semester of school, as the leaves turned and the football team paid the price for the administration’s Faustian bargain, we looked out for one another as we simply did the hard work of self-improvement.

My definition of dignity was advancing again.

Dignity: vision of the transcendent worth — the sacredness — of human beings. The dignity of the human person, realized in community with others
— U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

In many respects, my ability to excel alone, pencil in hand, bubbling a standardized test, had brought me to Notre Dame, but the rigors of college quickly revealed the limitations of the lone-wolf mindset. Relationships emerged as a new, essential component of dignity.

At the first meeting of the new freshmen in my section of St. Edward’s Hall, I spied a guy with a prominent nose, tortoise-shell glasses and an electric wheelchair. As we took turns introducing ourselves, I learned he was Adam Milani ’88, the survivor of a brutal hockey accident in high school and the son of Ken Milani, a Notre Dame accounting professor.

Adam lived across the hall with two upperclassman who had volunteered to serve as attendants. Chip Shinaver ’87 and Fred Nelson ’87 were relentlessly cheerful sophomores who moved Adam to and from his wheelchair, turned him during the night to help him avoid pressure sores and made themselves generally helpful to counter the limitations of his quadriplegia.

I’d never known anyone in a wheelchair before. I’m not sure what I expected from Adam, but I was inclined to be sympathetic. That didn’t play well. Like an animal that can smell fear, Adam could detect even the slightest air of pity and would not tolerate it. He was doggedly disciplined and reliably studious — two things I most certainly was not. However, we shared a love of Notre Dame football and Monty Python movies, which formed a firm foundation for a friendship. I also loved naps, and he didn’t mind if I snoozed on his therapeutic gel mattress while he sat at his desk, composing papers with typing sticks affixed to his hands.

As I spent time with a man robbed of his mobility, who relied on paid help to complete his most basic bodily functions, who had to accept the help of strangers for simply opening a door, I saw a different definition of dignity take shape. As he grew to trust me and taught me how to assist him without pity or pandering, our relationship grew deeper and his dignity enriched mine by osmosis.

My acclaim-fueled self-esteem was shouldered aside by a deeper sense of wholeness brought on by the simplest tasks. Helping Adam don a rain poncho, tying a necktie for him or carrying his tray from the line to the table in North Dining Hall became almost religious in their simplicity and meaning. Nothing I had ever done could compare. While definitions of dignity rooted in defiance or self-esteem had served their purpose, I was connecting with the Catholic bishops’ notion that dignity is best “realized in community with others.”

I became part of a small cadre of St. Ed’s guys who flowed with Adam through his life, discreetly opening doors, picking up dropped items and watching ND games from the handicap section on Adam’s attendant ticket. I learned to stay quiet on days that Adam’s frustration with his physical prison peaked. He signaled it with clipped sentences and an insistence on doing everything alone, opening every door, going to the dining hall solo and refusing conversation. I’d simply nap nearby on that gel mattress while he worked at his desk, wordlessly waiting for his dark cloud to recede.

My time at Notre Dame and my friendship with Adam — who became a lawyer and then a renowned scholar of disability law at Mercer University Law School before his death in 2005 — taught me that true, rich dignity had distinct component parts: acceptance of one’s own worth as made in the image of God, the embrace of every other human’s identical worth and the willingness to subordinate one’s needs to another’s. (I believe this is pretty much the entire gospel of Christ in about 29 words.)

As I look back on those three distinct dignity phases of my life, I recall that my perspective of Jesus’ solemn reaction to scourging at the hands of the Roman garrison morphed to suit. In grade school, I perceived Jesus as defiantly silent. In high school, my Jesus was condescendingly mute. In college, I came to believe he was quietly mourning for the guards themselves, sobered by their entrapment in a diminished humanity capable of intentional cruelty.

While an other-centered notion of dignity is a fundamental element of the Christian faith, it does not hold sway on our world as a whole . . . and we’re worse off for it. Political candidates denigrate opponents with seemingly unprecedented crudity, entire ethnic groups are marginalized (if not hunted outright, like Iraq’s Yazidi population), and those made vulnerable by their proximity to the beginning and end of life are discarded. Lacking this essential regard for others, our society is increasingly unstable.

Restoring civility to areas unsettled by violence, be they Baghdad or Ferguson, is incredibly difficult once the notion of mutual respect has been upended. However, the embrace of human dignity is the right first step, having been proven repeatedly as the glue that binds society together by fostering human rights, protecting personal property, enforcing civility and reducing violence.

When the value of any human life is diminished, injustice takes root. First to suffer are the weak: the unborn, the unfit and the elderly. Next in line are the weird: those among us who differ in terms of appearance, ethnicity or worldview. Finally, the wicked: those who have “trespassed against us” and remain unforgiven and apart. Day by day, each of these populations is further isolated, and the space between fills with mistrust and growing disrespect.

As a result of this division, America is in the throes of another dignifying down, and the signs are widespread. People are again coalescing into tribes of shared belief and self-regard, and that tribalism is defined as much by who does not belong as by who does. The result is a running gun battle of rhetoric in which the tone of arguments shifts from respectful disagreement with an opponent’s idea to aggressively deriding the person. Instead of saying “I disagree with your position,” discourse now runs to “You’re an idiot.”

This division is clearly evident in the U.S. political arena, where passion for a political agenda and disdain for its opponents is amplified by continuous coverage, targeting of vote-triggering grievances and bloviating candidates who fuel the fear of others as a way to unite their base. Good-hearted people may wax nostalgic for a candidate willing and able to reach across the aisle and broker compromise, but they apparently don’t vote that way. In fact, the increasingly narrow segment of our society that actually votes wants something else entirely.

For generations, Americans have been served a succession of classically dignified candidates with poll-driven rhetoric designed to please, the ability to dress the part and stiff upper lips in the face of debate pressure. Once these promising candidates took office, they often went off message in service of their own self-interest (or that of their major donors), leaving voters feeling abandoned.

The frustration and anger borne of that disenfranchisement is a leading factor in the support swelling up behind such “rogue” candidates as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

While he prefers the term “outsider,” Trump might best be described as a “post-dignity” candidate in the traditional context. He uses profanity, makes sly references to the dimensions of his manhood and insults his opponents with the saltiest of language. In past generations, good citizens would have been horrified at the mere thought of such a boor holding office (that was back when people used the word “boor”), but nowadays his appeal is spreading.

His acid tongue is burning through the consciousness of people numbed by slickly edited entertainment and resentful of past leaders whose promises proved empty. In response, these people crave authenticity and raw humanity in their candidates, even if they’re crass. They cheer as their candidate insults opponents and savor the powerful feeling of righteousness. As November approaches, the divisions between political factions are likely to grow deeper.

As Christians, we are proud heirs to a legacy of dissenters in the political arena, sons and daughters of advocates for social justice, equal rights and human dignity. Now is our turn to make a stand for dignity.

Regardless of who wins office, the transaction implied in an election and the sentiment that drives the winner to office will soon demand payment. Divisive, denigrating language on the campaign trail might make crowds cheer, but in policy form it becomes the stuff of nightmare. Leaders attack the dignity of others at the peril of the very society they presume to lead.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul encouraged his readers to “value others above yourselves.” Cynics may regard this as a call to false piety, but I consider it the voice of a spiritually mature Christian imparting a recipe for both personal fulfillment and social order.

Through a divine conversation begun on the road to Damascus, Paul intimately knew the ultimate example of dignity: Jesus himself. Through his incarnation, the Son of Man affirmed humanity’s primacy in creation, and through his ministry, he brought to the dinner table the whole range of humanity, from ruling elites to prostitutes. In a society inspired to adopt his unconditional love and serve our fellow humans, conflict is replaced by affirmation.

It is not necessarily human nature to recognize the dignity inherent in others, especially those who are members of the “3 Ws” noted earlier. However, placing the broader good ahead of self-interest is integral to good order and discipline. It is codified in the world’s major religions and underpins foundational legal documents from the Magna Carta to the Declaration of Independence. Stable societies have been built on the acculturation of dignity, placing value on good citizens who defer to authority, follow the rules, abide by custom and convention, and accept their lot in life without complaining.

However, like any virtue, deference is corruptible by power, even deadly when co-opted by people and institutions whose transgressions multiply behind the veil of silence formed when deference becomes acquiescence. History is riddled with stories of injustices visited upon victims dwelling in quiet desperation behind that veil, deprived of fundamental dignity by societal conventions and abused by authority figures free from accountability, be they crooked politicians, wayward clerics or violent parents.

The extreme of this unchecked corruption is found in Nazi concentration camps and the slaughter of Cambodian “depositees” under Pol Pot. The denigration of the weak, the weird and the wicked has consistently been a step on the path followed by history’s despots. People of good conscience must resist.

As Christians, we are proud heirs to a legacy of dissenters in the political arena, sons and daughters of advocates for social justice, equal rights and human dignity. Now is our turn to make a stand for dignity.

To be effective voices in arresting our nation’s spiral into distance, disrespect and disenfranchisement, we must embrace dignity, our own and that of others, regardless of consequence.

As a starting point, it is helpful to remember the difference between dignity and arrogance. Dignity flows from the belief that each human life is not just inherently valuable but is equally valuable. Arrogance says, “I matter more than you.” Dignity says, “I matter, and so do you.”

Next, we must take steps, even small ones, toward connecting in genuine relationship with others. That begins by opening our eyes to the “others” in our lives.

In service of the weak, will we visit the elderly? Will we honestly tell a friend in polite conversation how we feel about the precious lives snuffed out by abortion?

As we connect with those society would call weird, will we advocate for investments in mental health care so our prisons are not the only avenue for care? Will we engage with organizations like Mobile Loaves & Fishes in Austin, which is not only feeding the homeless but is creating a “tiny home” village to restore them to community?

For the wicked, will we take part in prison ministry or advocate for legal reforms that help convicted criminals secure the dignifying affirmation of a job and income?

Using our resources (dollars, hours, reputation) and channels of influence (social media, letters to elected officials, testimony at city council meetings), will we stand against those voices that attack dignity? Will we resist those who dehumanize refugees from Syria or Central America?

As we take to heart the promise in Matthew 25:40, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,’” we will find our own dignity being restored.

As we seek to refine our own definition of dignity and restore it to our culture, we must, ultimately, connect more closely to the Creator of life, seeking His voice in prayer, in creation and in ourselves with the simple request: Show us the divine in others, no matter how obscure, that we might connect it with ours and so live in relationship. In so doing, we can change the world for good.

Having long moved away from my hometown, there is little chance I’ll cross paths with the paperboy who spit on me. More than likely, our next meeting will take place somewhere near the Pearly Gates. When it happens, I’ll no longer be tempted to ball up my fist and retrieve the dignity taken from me but, instead, to embrace him as a fellow wounded traveler on the journey of life.

Andrew Barlow is a leadership communications consultant living in Austin, Texas.

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