David Brooks, NY Times Op-Ed columnist, stirred up a lot if interest with his column last week entitled, “The Moral Bucket List”. He tried to come up with a list of qualities that moral giants possessed–people whom he describes as having a powerful inner light that radiates out into the world, making us all feel good.
We admire these people. We want to be like them. Among the qualities that he came up with to describe these morally evolved beings were humility, generosity of spirit, depth of character. These “good people” were good at relationships, good at loving, good at embracing one’s “weaknesses.” They were people with a calling—deriving meaning from something bigger than themselves. They were more than comfortable with being in service to others. No narcissism in these folks.
I couldn’t help looking at this issue through a dignity lens. The qualities he describes are the essential characteristics of those who have developed an understanding of dignity. They are people who have a connection to their own inherent value and worth, to the the inherent value and worth of others, and the value and worth of being connected to something greater than oneself. Dignity is connection, connection, connection.
Whenever we disconnect from any one or all of these aspects of dignity, the inner light that David Brooks describes diminishes. If it is more than a fleeting disconnect, it will go out completely. That burning flame that we entered the world with (think about how bright the light is in newborn babies) turns into an inner darkness. We call that depression, self-doubt, anxiety, and hopelessness—an all-too-common occurrence in our dignity deprived lives.
In a world that encourages self-interest over these dignity embracing qualities, is it any wonder that we don’t encounter these “enlightened” individuals very often? Even though each and every one of us is born with dignity, we’re not born knowing how to act like it. It has to be learned. Our education system needs to teach it and live by it. In fact, a recent study by Richard Weissbord and Stephanie Jones at the Harvard School of a Education found the opposite.
In their “Making Caring Common Project,” after surveying 10,000 middle and high school kids all over the country, asking them to prioritize what is most important to them, surprising and sobering results emerged. The students chose high achievement and their own happiness over caring for others and fairness. What was worse, the students reported that they felt their parents and teachers would respond the same way.
This is disconnect gone awry. What about their connection to others? Or their connection to something greater than themselves? These kids are missing out on an opportunity for deeper meaning in their lives. Weissbord and Jones ask the question: “What kinds of kids are we raising? Self-interested and alienated achievers or those who feel the joy of connection and the light that shines when we’re part of something bigger?
I want to end by asking you to get a picture in your mind of a newborn infant. That baby whose light is so bright we can hardly contain the joy that it represents. We all came into the world with this incandescence and it is our job to keep the flames burning. We can’t do it alone. We need each other to reflect back that brightness and to recognize that the source of the light is dignity–kept alive through connection, connection, and connection.
Pictures courtesy of unsplash and pixabay (royalty-free)