Every day I have the honor of sitting beside some of the most wonderful people.
Together we listen, wander, and explore in search for insights that are made possible when people let their lives speak.
During the course of our time together, there are always at least two conversations happening “in the room,” as we say. The first is the conversation that can be heard: the words, the stories, the questions, and the hope spoken aloud. This is grist for the mill, paint for the canvas.
The other is the one that is always happening in the background, always weaving its quiet, deliberate way through the hour, unnoticed only if I’m not doing my job.
Which means that it is my responsibility to bring these profoundly emotional, but mostly unspoken conversations to the light, to give voice to them.
That silent conversation is about dignity, about people wanting to be treated as if they matter, as if they were human beings because, well, they do matter and they are human beings.
Often, people come to therapy to be reminded of that fact, which is not easy given the level of dysfunction, brokenness, and grief with which they are forced daily to deal.
We live in a world where not everyone knows what dignity really means. Because we don’t know how to restore, uphold, protect or honor dignity in our own lives or that of others.
I believe there is a cultural mandate to restore dignity wherever we find ourselves.
What is dignity? Most people think “respect,” as if the two are synonymous. I believe there to be an important difference between them.
Dignity is your inherent value and worth, bestowed upon us all as persons, as human beings; it is something you own. Respect is my acknowledging that fact, and treating you as such.
Consider a newborn. Is it difficult to imagine that that baby has inherent value and intrinsic worth? Is it hard to believe that that infant is priceless and irreplaceable?
And what do we do with something so precious and dependent and valuable? We protect, nurture, and care for her.
Then the baby becomes a toddler, who becomes a child, who becomes an adolescent, who becomes an adult. What happens along the line to make the rest of us lose sight of the preciousness of that child who has now grown up? Isn’t that person still infinitely valuable, and precious, and worthy, and deserving of our honor and our regard?
Yes, of course. But at some point, that dignity was violated and that person became angry, hurt, resentful, contemptuous, disdainful, and perhaps even filled with hate.
Those kinds of emotions make it easier for us to dislike them. And disliking them is not very far from disregarding them, dismissing their dignity in one fell swoop.
What was so precious and valuable becomes wounded and sad and we become intolerant of them, stripping them of their dignity.
We have no idea the damage we do.
A recent California-based research study shows, using brain scans, that a serious wound appears on the brain in light of psychological trauma just as it does in light of physical trauma. In other words, the study shows that the brain reacts identically to a psychological or emotional wound as it does to a physical one.
Get this: Our brains don’t know the difference between a physical injury or an injury to our dignity.
And what do we do when we are physically hurt?
We go to the ER. We get seen. We get the care we need.
That’s what we do for physical injury.
What do we do when we have wounds to our dignity? There is no hospital, no ER, no crisis center to call, or convenient care facility to visit when someone has dishonored us, has violated our human dignity.
So what do we do?
We hold on to those wounds. They get infected. They fester. They deepen. They spread.
Sometimes they take over, unless we’ve learned to forgive.
We do well to remember the Golden Rule, giving to others what will allow them to feel valued and worthy as people with dignity. The fringe benefit is: when we honor others’ dignity, we strengthen our own.
Honoring someone for who they are; recognizing others for their uniqueness; seeing them, hearing them, knowing them; including them and restoring a sense of belonging; instilling in them the hope and possibility of freedom; offering them a safe and secure place, free of marginalization and psychological wounds; treat people fairly; always giving them the benefit of the doubt; seeking to understand others; and, learning to claim responsibility and apologizing when we have harmed someone.
When we live under the rubric of these practices, we become a safe haven, a flickering light on a stormy sea, a vault in which people can place their fears and find that they are valued as worthy persons of dignity.
I think the secret prize hidden in this recipe answers this timeless question: How do we heal the divisions, the violence, the brokenness we see all around us?
I think it’s simple: We restore dignity in the world.
Imagine if we all made that commitment: to remind people we encounter of their inherent value, their intrinsic worth, their dignity as a human being who is honored and who will never be forced to wonder if they can be seen, heard, included, or known again.
Starting now, claim your dignity and restore someone else’s. Tell them how worthy they are. It’s one suture, sure, in a very deep cut. But every healed wound got its start that way.
Dr. Jonathan Eric Carroll, KLPC, NCPC, NCCE, is a state-licensed mental health professional, is an ACPE Psychotherapist, and is the Founder of The Clinic @ The Montgomery in downtown Owensboro. Dr. Carroll serves as the Grief Therapist for six funeral homes in the region.
He also co-created and cohosts “You’ll Die Trying,” a podcast available everywhere. Visit www.themontgomeryclinic.com.