Every semester I teach a weekend class at Columbia University through the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution in the Teacher’s College. The course is entitled, Healing and Reconciling Relationships in Conflict: A Dignity Approach. It is always a powerful experience. I love sharing my learning about dignity with 20 graduate students from all over the world. This semester was different. I had only 9 students.
At first, I was disappointed. I know how to work with groups of 20. I have never had such a small class. It didn’t take long, however, to realize that this was an opportunity, not a reason for disappointment. In fact, it gave deeper meaning to a Goethe quote that I love: Treat people as they want to be and you help them become what they are capable of being.
There were 9 women from diverse backgrounds and life experiences. In spite of their differences, they had one thing in common: a profound understanding of dignity. They might not have known it coming into class on Friday, but by Sunday afternoon, after many intense hours together grappling with dignity, they claimed their knowledge. We are all experts in knowing when someone violates us. We all know the dreaded feeling of being treated as unworthy. We all know the wonderful feeling of being seen, heard, and listened to. What the class did for them was give them a language to talk about it.
The other important thing the class did was to make it safe to discuss these tender experiences of indignity. We explored the depths of dignity together, empathizing, acknowledging, and generally being there for one another.
These remarkable women came together for a learning experience that was unique. They walked away not only understanding dignity, but perhaps more importantly, understanding that when the environment is safe, and we make ourselves vulnerable, the truth is always set free. Vulnerability is where the buried truth lies. We also learned that it takes strength to be vulnerable.
One of the most joyful consequences of the weekend was that everyone wanted to stay connected. They talked about getting together with their newfound “Dignity Buddies.” They made a commitment to each other to be available when issues arose and they needed support. The connection we all felt at the end was comforting, loving and a surprise. What was it about spending 20 hours together learning about dignity that felt so empowering?
At the end of the day, I think it is about three things: connection, connection, and connection. They learned to connect with their own dignity; to connect with each others’ dignity and to connect to the dignity of something greater than themselves. In this last case, the connection was to a community. They became a community by learning about their shared desire for dignity. They became a community because they experienced each other’s most precious humanity. They became a community because they were not afraid to be authentic and vulnerable. Together, they became more of what they are capable of being.