It’s challenging to retain one’s sense of dignity while standing in an exam room naked, wrapped only in a crinkly paper hospital gown that doesn’t quite close in the back. It also feels rather undignified to have an esophageal spasm sneak up on me at the dinner table and erupt with a noise something between a belch and a heave. Illness has a way of exposing us–sometimes literally–in profoundly humbling ways.
But what does it mean to possess dignity, or to be dignified (or, conversely, undignified)? To my ear the noun and the adjective have slightly different connotations. I think of “dignity” as an aspect or feature of a person’s character, a personal attribute or identity trait, whereas “dignified” is descriptive of a particular action or behavior–acting in a way generally deemed appropriate to the context or situation. (Thus a person could be possessed of an essential dignity while occasionally behaving in an undignified manner.)
But both words, I think, call up the image of a kind of stoicism or reserve, someone a little outside of it all, above the fray. Dignity is something we attribute to someone who maintains control, keeps calm in even the most trying or tragic of circumstances– the parent who’s lost a child but is able to deliver an eloquent speech, for example, without dissolving into tears. To be undignified, on the other hand, is to be out of control, to react in an outsized manner–the athlete who throws a racket in a fit of pique, the drunk partygoer who turns loud and rude.
But what’s the cost of associating dignity and dignified behavior with a stiff upper lip, repressed emotion, an invulnerable facade? Especially for someone who is robbed of control–perhaps even autonomy–by illness or other circumstances derived not from their own choices? Why should it be undignified to cry if it hurts, to curse at the bloody unfairness of it all? We shouldn’t have to suppress essential elements of what makes us human to feel our own sense of, or be seen as having, dignity.
When I asked hubby Steve how he would define dignity, he answered “recognition of value.” His definition echoes the word’s etymology, which indicates it descends from concepts connected to “worth.”
I will never be comfortable making impolite noises in the company of others. But I know that my inability to control them is not a measure of my worth. And if I cry sometimes, I hope that I am all the more human and none the less dignified for my honesty. Let’s normalize a sense of dignity that embraces the full human, rather than valorizing our ability to partition off our emotions. There is value–and dignity–in all that makes us who we are.