What is dignity?
Our English word ‘dignity’ comes from the Latin ‘dignitāt-em’, which means… worthy.
These days, I’m pretty unfazed by most things that happen in my medical appointments. I mean, when the gowns themselves have big slits in the back, you know you’re going to have to be pretty open-minded about the whole experience.
But several surgeries ago, I had a very distressing experience. The doctors and nurses (with the exception of one lovely nurse) did not treat me as though I was worthy of respect or consideration. It wouldn’t have cost them any extra time or effort to do the procedure prep in a way that didn’t make me feel demeaned and humiliated. But they all thought it was a big joke, and gathered around laughing instead. Not only did that procedure yield no helpful results, I went home feeling violated and emotionally scarred. Just quietly, behind the scenes, misty thoughts about dignity started to swirl and take shape.
Then, during my most recent stay in hospital (post-pacemaker surgery) those behind-the-scenes workings shifted to the forefront of my mind. A few hours post-procedure, after several bags of saline, I desperately needed to wee. The nurses brought a bedpan for me to use on the chair next to my bed, but I just couldn’t go. So after a little while, I decided to shuffle the few metres to the toilet instead. I made it there…and then collapsed. I was on the toilet, but I couldn’t go. I was nauseous and the room was spinning. I struggled to breathe and broke out into a cold sweat. Desperately trying to stay conscious, I called out to my husband and pressed the ‘nurse’ button on the wall. My husband ran out into the hall, and seeing no one around, called out loudly, “Help! Please, we need some help!”
Two nurses appeared. Together, they lifted me off the toilet I had collapsed on. One of them calmly pulled up the underwear that was tangling my ankles, so that I could get into the wheelchair to be escorted back to bed. They gently undressed me and cleansed my skin with wet wipes they had warmed in the microwave, redressing me in a clean gown.
Later that night, as I lay in bed, I compared those two experiences.
One group of medical professionals had treated me with dignity, and one had not. What did that mean? If someone treats me as though I am not worthy of respect, does that mean that I’m not?
The answer was a resounding no.
My dignity does not depend on the way I am treated.
This is the point where I think people get confused.
They think humans are teapots.
For example, here is a beautiful teapot.
It looks stunning and it’s functional – you can brew some delicious tea in it, sit on the back verandah and enjoy the sunshine.
But what about when your dog knocks the teapot off the table, and it smashes into pieces on the wooden decking?
People, however, are not teapots. When something embarrassing happens to you, when you’re treated badly, when part of you breaks… unlike a teapot, we can’t just go out and get a new you. There is only ONE you. And, unlike teapots, as a human, your worth does not depend on your beauty or functionality.
I believe my worth comes from the fact that God made me, in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). And when I was at my most unworthy and unlovable, Christ loved me in spite of it (John 3:16).
I am not like a teapot; I have infinite intrinsic (internal, deep down, wrapped around the core of me) worth. That means, just by being me, I have a dignity that can’t be taken away, no matter what happens.
Even if you don’t believe in God, you probably still believe in intrinsic worth. I love butterflies: one of my favourite ways to spend a day is sitting in a butterfly house, surrounded by their tiny flapping wings. Most people like butterflies. So if you hit and killed a butterfly while you were driving, you may be upset, even distraught. But if you ran over a child? It would probably haunt you for the rest of your life. Why? How is a butterfly and a child different? Butterflies, although beautiful, are not people. And people have intrinsic worth.
For some reason, we find this easy to believe about other people.
When my husband hurt his back, and was unable to move for a time, let alone work and drive, I did not think he was ‘less worthy’ of my love and respect. When he healed, and was back to being fit and healthy, I did not love him ‘more’ than when he had been unwell.
Yet I constantly struggle to not look down on myself. When I’m on my mobility scooter, and people are pointing and staring, it’s hard not to shrink into myself and feel less worthy. When the house is untidy, or my husband is having chicken soup out of the freezer for dinner again, there’s an inner voice saying, “You’re a terrible wife!”
When I’ve cooked healthy muffins for dessert, or finished an errand my husband has asked me to do, I feel ecstatic, because here is proof that I’m useful! And I need to be useful, right? Because if I’m not looking good and being useful, I’m not worthy… no wait… I’m getting myself confused with the teapots again…
If my worth depended on how I looked and functioned, I can tell you I wouldn’t be worth a whole lot.
I mean – I mostly wear pajamas. I started really needing a haircut about two weeks ago (it’s now at the ‘mad scientist’ stage). I’m medically unable to work enough to support myself. I’m limited to using a mobility scooter as transportation (so sexy…). Every ECG* I’ve had (and I’ve had a lot!) requires my ‘verandah’ to be on display, while sticky dots are stuck all over my chest. I’ve had tubes and swabs stuck in most orifices.
Basically, I’m telling you that if you Google the word “dignified”, I can guarantee you that a picture of me is not going to pop up! As a young teenager, all these things really got to me. Now, over a decade later, I just take most of it in my stride.
I am not a teapot.
My worth does not depend on my beauty or usefulness.
And if I break (which I do, often) then I will repair myself with gold.
Every day, I have to work hard to not confuse my feelings with reality.
I may feel unlovable and unworthy some days.
But I. Am. Worthy.
And so are you.
Do you struggle (like me) to remember that, unlike a teapot, your worth does not depend on how you look, or what you can and can’t do?
Does knowing you are intrinsically worthy change how you feel about yourself, or about others?
* ECG = electrocardiogram = heart monitoring