What Does Dignity Really Mean?

by Deacon Stephen Bowling

Before coming to work for the Archdiocese, I worked for a “long-term healthcare provider”, something more commonly known as a nursing home company.

It was during my time there that I was regularly able to partake of many steaming hot mugs full of human dignity – opportunities to observe and interact positively with those facing many debilitating health challenges as part of their everyday lives. This is a process which I highly recommend that everyone take part in as often as they can as it forever changed my heart for the better I am certain.

Dignity is something which is part of every human being’s makeup, as given to them by God . . . and yet far too often our recognition of this fact falls way short in a practical sense. We see the person shaking with Parkinson’s disease and wonder what is “wrong” with them. We may silently give thanks that we are “not like those people” just like the Pharisee did in Luke 18 as we walk past an Alzheimer’s and Dementia ward. We often run the other way when confronted by everyday dignity issues like incontinence, pressure ulcers or just plain and simple loneliness.

But no matter our first reaction . . . ULTIMATELY . . . as Christians . . . we know what we are called to do.

Dignity is an attitude, first and foremost. It must come from inside the “subject” – us; it does not reside in the “object” – the person who is facing whatever challenges. Dignity is how the heart is oriented and only from there does the proper response come forth. I am reminded of the famous story of an American tourist in India who once stood by in awe as he watched Mother Teresa lovingly clean the infected wounds of a horribly disfigured leper. “Sister,” he commented, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars!” Her response back to him was one for the ages: “Neither would I, brother. Neither would I.”

Dignity is bestowed with love and comes from a soft heart which is made of out of compassion . . . or it simply is not there at all. It is not so much about what it is we DO for those in need but HOW our hearts are oriented in that doing. It can be very easy to ignore dignity issues like human trafficking, pornography or abortion and euthanasia but almost just as easy to “throw money” at them hoping to assuage whatever guilt we might feel about the fact that such things exist.

But as Christians, we are called to so much more.

The real challenge is to take up the cross of getting our hands “into the mire” and make an individual difference for someone REAL. Volunteering of our time and talent is far more effective than any other remedy we might hope to undertake. Because dignity is kept in our hearts, making sure that it has the proper environment to grow is something we must always be working to provide.

As the new year dawns upon us once again, so it is once again a time to make a new difference in the lives of someone in need. Our assistance needs to be an “active” one as Pope Francis reminds us. For him we must always have “dirty shoes” which so clearly illustrate that we have been walking where the need is, spreading the good news personally by our hands and our hearts.

For as Jesus himself told us, and as we all should know, the need is always with us.


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