My attention was drawn to the concept of dignity long before I had words to describe it. As a little girl, when I saw people mistreat others; when I saw myself engaged in hurtful fights with my sisters, there was a part of me that wondered, “Can’t we do better?” Kids have an uncanny sense of how to honor dignity; that is, until they have experienced enough indignities themselves that they forget. We have an inborn desire to connect with others, but if we experience enough abuse and neglect, that desire turns into fear, and we withdraw from the very thing we want the most: loving relationships where we feel seen, heard, acknowledged, understood, and treated as if we mattered.
It took more than half my adult life to figure out a way to talk about this yearning that we all have to want to be treated well. It’s important to us because we also want to live our lives in relationship with others in a way that makes us feel good about ourselves, feel good about others, and to be at peace with the world around us. It took nearly twenty years of working as an international conflict resolution specialist to crystallize my thinking about what dignity is, why it matters to us, and how we can use it to build healthy relationships with one another and to restore those that have broken under the strain of conflict.
I do not claim the moral high ground when it comes to living a dignified life. I have good days and bad days. When the pressure is great, I still find myself succumbing to my self-preservation instincts and want nothing more than to get even with the person who has violated me. The temptation is there and always will be. I can say that I aspire to live out the principles I have developed in the dignity model, because the work is never done.
There are powerful external forces as well as the unhealed forces within us that leave us vulnerable to violating our own and the dignity of others. After all, we humans are an evolving species, which means there will always be a greater consciousness for us to achieve; more to learn about ourselves and our developing humanity. Understanding that we are a species in process gives me confidence that I was on the right track when I was six when I asked myself the question: “Can’t we do better?” At sixty I know the answer: We can and we’ll do it with dignity.