We talk a lot about dignity in health care. One of the researchers at Cancer Care Manitoba, Dr. Harvey Chochinov, has written a book about a therapeutic approach that he developed to help those who are approaching the end of life. He calls the approach “Dignity Therapy”. The therapy seeks to encourage care givers to develop the skills to honor the dying person as that person approaches the end of life.
“Dignity”, like so many things we use the word without having a clear understanding about what we are talking about. So what is dignity? The English Oxford Dictionary defines dignity as “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect”. Now both Christian and secular thinkers teach that human beings are inherently worthy of dignity and respect. Or, simply being human makes one worthy of honor or respect. But, both Christians and secularists do a very poor job of practicing this principle.
I’m not trying to be offensive and I’m not at all saying that I do a better job than others, I am just expressing what I see and the struggle I experience day after day everywhere I look. “Important people” – doctors, pro athletes, media personalities, and popular musicians are all treated with a kind of honor and respect that far exceeds the way the fellow standing in the median on Main Street with a cardboard sign asking for help is treated. Both are fully human but both are not afforded the same worth and respect.
In a personal care home, amiable, gregarious residents are afforded more dignity than cranky, unpleasant residents. In a church, those pleasant, helpful, hardworking members are afforded more dignity than those cantankerous, miserable ones that seem to be able to find fault no matter what. A beautiful, “perfect” baby is afforded more dignity than one born with visible defects. The brilliant, college graduate is afforded more dignity than the 22 year old born with fetal alcohol syndrome who couldn’t get through high school. You get it.
Why, because despite our philosophies, Christian or secular, which afford equal dignity to each person in theory, in the real world of real people, honor and respect are earned. When you think of it, this “deserving” concept connected with honor and respect is applied by us almost universally. Those who believe in God even vacillate in the dignity we afford God based on how well we assess God’s performance (as arrogant as that is). When the embittered father who has just lost a child screams, “If this is how God loves us then I want no part of God” he is assessing the worth and respect due God based on a standard he has set.
Now don’t get me wrong, I get the anguish out of which this kind of statement comes. I understand how easy it is to “rank” the worth of people based on a whole lot of criterion like physical appeal, personality, achievement, how well they “fit in” and many others. But imagine for just a moment what a transformation would take pace in our lives if everyone we encountered was treated with dignity, if each person were held in high esteem, if each was viewed as worthy of respect, simply because they existed. Imagine what would take place if achievement or other standards on which we judge each other never were used again to assess a person’s worth.
I know, we can’t but recently as I was trying I came to the conclusion that we cannot imagine this because we cannot imagine heaven. As I seek to wrap my rather feeble mind around the concept of heaven, I imagine being in God’s presence and every one being actually given dignity based on nothing other than the grace of God that made it possible for us to be there. Imagine…
Chaplain's Corner was written by Bethesda Place now retired chaplain Larry Hirst. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely that of the writer and do not represent the views or opinions of people, institutions or organizations that the writer may have been associated with professionally.