Dignity comes from the Latin word ‘dignus’ (which means worthy/ deserving). Most of us understand dignity in a very simple way, such as the helping patients to retain their dignity during medical treatment. We also, understand the dignity of women whereby we believe that a lady has a right to be free from harassment in the workplace, for instance. Probably, the easiest form of dignity, which we recognise, is the dignity of a new born child. The new born child doesn’t really express many attributes, their personality is not yet developed, and they spend most of their time sleeping, eating, going to the toilet, laughing, crying or simply observing what’s going on, yet we love new born children! There is something about them which is beautiful and alluring even though we don’t know what it is. I believe that this is the dignity of the new born child; we instinctively appreciate this little person, just as they are without any focus on their external attributes other than their being cute to look at!
This is what we can call the innate dignity of the child, but if we think about it more deeply, if we compare say a new born child with a very aged individual do we feel the same feelings of love towards the elderly person which we feel towards the infant?
I think not!
In fact I know not!
Elderly people are not seen in the same light at all. We cope with old people, we tolerate old people, after all we philosophise to ourselves that these elderly persons have served society well or they are loved members of our own family. Perhaps they have raised us and we feel gratitude towards them. This is all good, but isn’t it interesting that we force ourselves to tolerate them? Why we are not delighted the way we are when it comes to infants?
An infant who is a few weeks old is roughly on par with an elderly geriatric patient, who is at the end stages of their life. Neither the infant nor the old person can control their bladder and bowel functions; neither is capable of walking and neither is really present in that they are here but really they are somewhere else. Brad Pitt, in the movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” presented this amazing comparison in this story of a man who was living his life backwards, starting with old age and ending with birth. This delightful movie demonstrated aptly the similarities between the beginning and end sates of life. The picture of life and death and reincarnation as presented by the Krishna Consciousness movement (ISKCON) in their lifecycle paintings, comes to mind when we think about this comparison.
It is not my intention here to suggest that reincarnation is a reality, some people belief in it and others do not, but what I am suggesting is that the beginning and end stages in life do appear to be cyclical in nature.
The thing which really peaks my interest is the way that these two similar stages in life promote completely different feelings. Anyone who has taken care of elderly parents can vouch for the difficulty involved and how it becomes a burden, one which is only removed with the passing of the elderly parent. Of course, the difficulty found when facing death and the realisation that things are only going to get worse rather than better inclines the relatives towards a wanting for the release and that this release is a blessing rather than a curse. This is all fine and understandable but, putting the subject of dealing with death to one side, why the feeling of a burden when an old person behaves likes a young child?
I feel that answer to this lies in the subject of dignity. Our society, in general, is focused on external attributes, what are external attributes? They are things about us which reflect how we interact with the world. So we look at a whole list of things such as physical appearance. It has been proven by scientific experiments that beautiful people tend to be more successful than not so beautiful people1. Our present day society is very ageist in that the younger the better, this is an example of an external attribute. But what other attributes do we look for? Well things like wealth, success, and even simple things like status. How often do we meet new people and either they ask us or we ask them “what do you do for a living?” or “what do you work at?” This is a feeler question whereby we are checking out their status and seeing if they match our background. This is an unconscious decision but it is there all the same.
Unemployment is another good example. How many people feel bad when they lose their job? How many people lose a sense of their self when either they lose their job or they face retirement? Why is it that many men die several years after retiring? Why do some millionaires kill themselves when they become bankrupt, as is often evidenced during major economic crashes?
The answer to this is external attributes. In our society we are thought to look for and appreciate these external attributes. Another example of this focus on external attributes is our love of fame and famous people. Again in today’s society we have become fascinated by fame and famous people. We seem to be more interested in the lives of famous people than in the lives of our family members and friends who are actually in relationship with us! Now how crazy is that!
Returning to our comparison of our perceptions regarding aged persons versus young infants, it is an interesting thing to note that in society in general we do not appreciate the aged. Feelings of burden are to be expected in close family relations whenever there is serious illness present, so we should not think too much about this. However, even if we put our own family relations to one side it is easy to see that the elderly are generally ignored or stereotyped in our society. At least in decades past the old person was seen as an elderly advisor who could point the way, whereas these days they are seen in the same light as old cars that have had their day!
Why is it?…Why is it that even though we respect the elderly we just do not delight in them to the same degree as we do with young children?… Why is society so prejudiced against the elderly? Just look at the ads on the TV, how many of them feature old people? Not many and those which do feature stereotypical figures of grandma and grandpa, but that’s about it.
Society is fixated on producers!
The reason for this lack of interest in the elderly, I feel, relates back to our focus on external attributes. Our society is so geared to picking up on success signals that once a person becomes elderly they are pretty much relegated and ignored. Unconsciously, possibly even pre-consciously we recognise a certain obsolescence in the elderly. Their family members might still love them because of old familial ties, but society in general sees the elderly as out-dated. Society is continually fixated on producers, on who can produce the top result in society. The rich, the famous and the powerful are on the top end of the ladder of society, with pretty much every other person trying their best to pry their way up the ladder towards success.
The reason then why we tolerate the elderly, rather than love them, is because unconsciously encoded in our minds is an evaluation of a person’s worth based upon external attributes. The elderly, the poor, the weak and disabled, the people who don’t fit in, hell even the not so good looking, get relegated because on some level we evaluate them and put them into the category of “not so successful”. It’s not that we dislike them it’s just that we judge them as being a waste of time or certainly as not been worth our extended efforts.
In case you think me too unkind just take a look at the example of two men, one very good looking and the other not so good looking. Even though the not so good looking man may possess the same traits, the same level of intelligence, personality, the same value system, even if he is exactly the same yet he looks less attractive it will definitely have an effect, won’t it? Let’s take an even more interesting example of a man who at 25 is the talk of the town and yet at aged 50 he is seen as middle aged. The same individual, yet his attractiveness to members of the opposite sex and his appeal in general will be reduced, not by any change within him but merely as a consequence of the aging process and how it affects his outward appearance. Of course he could exercise and dye his hair and so on and more than likely fare better than before, but all these measures are merely projecting a youthful image aren’t they?
Of course it’s not quite so simple. A middle aged man will often possess more confidence and may well do better at presenting himself in an authority’s way simply by his (now mature) physical appearance. But isn’t this once again a case of external attributes.
Finally let’s take an example of ageism in the opposite direction. A policeman sees a man breaking a red light and pulls him to one side. The man in question is very young, possibly a teenager and his lack of maturity results in a shyness which prevents him from communicating effectively. There is a good chance that he will receive a fine. On the other hand, a man on the same type of bike doing the same activity, when stopped takes off his helmet and we see that he is a middle aged man. Because he is older he can communicate in a better way and also due to maturity he knows how to be respectful and apologetic towards the policeman. In this case there is a good chance that he will get off without a fine. This is all obvious I think you will agree. Young men do more stupid things and policemen will immediately think badly of them, unless they demonstrate a good degree of communication and deliver the appropriate level of respect, whereas middle aged men rarely do stupid things and are better communicators. But still the point remains that external attributes are the determining factor in how the policeman will judge these two people.
So what are we to do about attributes?
It would be an impossible job to stop judging according to external appearance and certainly there are times when it makes sense. For example, if you are looking for someone to rent out your apartment, it just makes sense to go for the well turned out respectable persons. They may turn out to be otherwise, but as a rule of thumb they will usually be more regular and well behaved than say someone who is dishevelled and jobless.
So what are we to do?
Well we cannot change society (at least not overnight), but we can make a shift in our consciousness by becoming more aware of this subtle judgemental process. Basically this inner judgemental thinking mode is neither good nor bad, rather it is a survival tool which somehow ended up taking centre stage in our decision making process! It is necessary, for each individual to be able to assess their reality on a regular basis. People, who do not check their reality, end up losing touch with it and our mental homes are occupied by many of these individuals. So it is really important to be able to assess a situation and judge it from the perspective of deciding what to do next. “Should I overtake this car now, how is the other driver behaving?” “Should I marry this person, are they like my family members?”, “Should I open up and talk with this person, is it safe to do so?”, “should I give time to this person, or are they going to waste my time?”, “Should I lend this person money. Will I ever get it back?” These are some of the judgemental questions which we make unconsciously or pre-consciously on a daily basis. In this sense this inner judgemental mechanism is a good thing.
However, when this survival mechanism takes over and we start allocating people according to a hidden hierarchy, which lies just below the level of our everyday consciousness, well this is not a good thing at all!
Somewhere along the way the master became the servant and today the number one defect present in the world is judgementalism. Everybody is judging everybody and the net result is distrust, anxiety, tension, worry, fear and reactive thnking and acting which added all together provdes for a nasty mix which does not help anyone or society in general!
But we can take hope from the example of the love, which most people feel towards an infant. Surely there is some consistency here. Why is it that certain things make us happy, or that people in general seek out love and try to establish a family for themselves. It may not be a traditional family, but most people do feel happiest when they are involved in a loving romantic relationship and when they have some sort of family life, as in surrounding themselves with people whom they love?
Personally, I feel that these repetitive patterns in human behaviour points the way towards which we can live a successful and happy life. If we can feel love towards a young infant and yet not feel love towards a regular person than what is the difference?
The difference lies in the judgemental process at work. We judge the young child as been perfect and as having all the best external attributes in waiting. While young infants do not demonstrate many external attributes, which society valorises, they do possess the potential for these attributes. Whereas say an old person, for instance, demonstrates practically zero potential for these external attributes, hence we judge them as been outmoded!
If we take out the judgement process then hey presto we love old people, is that right?
Well it’s a little more difficult than this, because so much of our thinking occurs in the unconscious or pre-concious mind, so a complete reversal of this judgemental process is porbably next to impossible. But we can try the following:
A). Focus on the inherent dignity of human life. Think about it, read about it and expand your perceptions regarding human beings in general.
B). Become more aware of your judgemental process at work
C). Practice becoming more philosophical. Whenever you become aware of a dichotomy between your judgement and the inherent demands of dignity, think about how you may respond better to the demands of the situation.
D). Endeavour to treat others according to the demands of inherent dignity whenever possible.
Inherent dignity what is that?
Inherent dignity means the respect which you are due for no other reason than you are a human being.It is both a simple concept and a difficult one at the same time. It is a simple concept because we all know that we should respect everyone, as Jesus says “treat others as you would like to be treated”, we all know this. However, it is also difficult because it is so hard to apply this to EVERYONE. It’s the EVERYONE bit which is so difficult, because we all want to judge and classify others.
The difficulty which we face, as human beings, is that our personalities are far from mature and yet we need to feel a strong sense of self in order to function in this world. Since we are essentially immature this strong sense of self is lacking and is replaced instead by a false self or false ego, whereby we are denial of aspects of our personalities which are not integrated. What we mean by a lack of integration means that certain aspects of our personalities are at odd’s with our self concept. For example, a person may be conifdent in many spheres yet they lack confidence when it comes to their physical appearance. This represents a lack of integration. In an attempt at bypassing these strong feelings of inadequacy this person instead of feeling inadequate their unconcous mind projects a critical side whereby they criticise the appearance of other people. They are in fact projecting their own dislike of their self onto other people. However, they are not concoiuus of this and this causes problems. For a start they are still unhappy with their own physical appearance and secondly they have a bad habit of critisizng everybody else’s appearance. They feel somewhat unhappy but cannot explain how and also they irritate their freiends and relatives with their harsh critisicms.
This is the sort of thing which we are all doing on an unconcous level. It is because of this self-defensive judgementalism that we feel at odds against others. If you ever find yourself disliking someone or some thing it is a guranttee that something about them reflects some aspect of your own self which you do not like very much!
Getting back to inherent dignity, the first step in this process is to accept that we are all essentially immature and that our unconcous minds compensate in a rather inappropriate way by developing prejudices which we project onto others. Also, society itself projects prejudices onto its members on a continual basis. Returning back to external attributes society projects prejudices all the time about what is ideal. For example, if you look at paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries you will note the number of famous female nude paintings whereby the female model is chubby. Back in those days the prejudice “chubby is good” was projected onto society whereas today the prejudice “skinny is good” is being projected instead.
Dignity – Society – People
We all know that society is’nt what it should be. Everyone appears to be too critical of just about everyone and everything else. Nothing seems right with the world. Society appears to be worsening, or so everyone says!
This world has never changed so much, in all of its history, as it has in the last one hundred years. In many ways we are truly making progress as a civilisation. It may not appear so because of all the confusion, prejudice, misunderstandings and hatred. But these have always been present throughut every age of man. However, today a new quality is present and it is transparency. Thanks both to technology and a greater level of open mindedness we are reaching a level of communication and transparency in human activites which has never before been envisaged.
Behind all of the confusion lies the hope, the hope for a greater and wiser humanity. We have to believe that man is not simply the result of a blind watchmaker hitting a homerun!
I believe that there is some purpose in mankind and that we, as a race, have a destiny to fulfil and that one of the key cornerstones is dignity, not only for the potential evolution of mankind but also it represents the way to wholeness and happiness on an individual level as well!
Try out the four suggestions above. It will not be easy, both because of our own inner prejudices as well as societies prejudices which are projected onto us in the form of external attributes, but it is worth a try.
The good thing with dignity and our work towards recognising it in everyone is that regardless of our success rate the effort is worthwhile. Even if we only make a little progress it will yield an increase in personal happiness, alleviation in discrimination towards others and an evolution of mankind towards some better future!
It’s worth the effort, give it try I think you will like the result!
- Landy, David; Sigall, Harold
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 29(3), Mar 1974, 299-304. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0036018