“Dignity is a quiet strength which reflects your deep honor and self-respect. It … portrays a calm awareness and generosity of spirit regardless of the environment or circumstances.” Susan C. Young
Think of someone you know, or know of, someone with quiet self-assurance, a person with a strong moral compass, who is not swayed by passing fancies, a man or woman who sets a clear direction for their lives, who is dependable and trustworthy. Who doesn’t give his or her word lightly, but having given it, always follows through? This is a person whom others go to for advice or comfort. These are people who set an example for others, who people think of when presented with a problem.
I was reflecting on people like this and how, when you encounter one, the meeting is to be treasured. Even when they are public or historical figures – Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Viktor Frankel, Queen Elizabeth – and a personal meeting is not on the cards, a meeting of hearts and minds is certainly available.
It has been an immense privilege in my life to have met many people who are just like this. Strong people in the true sense of that word, not forceful or combative, but steady and resilient.
What word do we have to describe this confluence of qualities? There are many words that could be used to describe this combination of virtues but the one that seems best is ‘Dignity’.
Dignity is a subtle, elusive quality, but you know it when you see it. It is a quiet strength, integrity, and dependability, which engenders respect and a feeling of admiration.
The English word ‘dignity’ comes from the Latin ‘dignitas’, which carries the sense of worthiness, worth, honor; that which is fitting and proper.
With dignity, therefore, there is worth, value and substance, linked to that which is fitting, proper, and appropriate to the situation. So, a man or woman of dignity is worthy of honor and behaves in a way that fits the situation. Among friends they are friendly, when in a position of leadership, they are respectful of those to whom they are responsible and decisive when action is required. They are careful of the feelings and needs of others but are not swayed by personal considerations from doing the right thing.
From this, we can see that people with dignity have inner steadiness and carry themselves with a sense of strength and integrity. And they also view the world through a lens that means they see the best in others. The reason is simple. We all see the world to a greater or lesser extent as a projection of our own thoughts and feelings. This is a very big topic which we can cover another day. Suffice for now that a dignified person with strength, integrity, and goodwill in their heart looks out on a world and sees those same qualities in others – perhaps hidden, perhaps less manifest in some than others. But they always seek to identify and draw out the best.
And this is, of course, reflected in their actions as well. Giving their best, speaking honestly, showing kindness, acting decisively. All this is part of dignity.
Sanskrit, as always, can fill out our understanding of the true nature of this quality of dignity. The Sanskrit word for dignity is Māhātmyam (माहात्म्यम्). This is a compound of māhā, which means ‘great’, and ātman which means ‘essential indwelling Self, or soul’. So Māhātmyam means great-souled, having a great or noble nature, high-minded, highly gifted, exceedingly wise.
Perhaps we should resist the temptation to delve too far into these concepts and let them stand for themselves. We can over-analyze notions of nobility and worth and honor and, yes, dignity. We run the same risk as the watchmaker who lays out all the pieces of the clock on his workbench. All the separate elements that go to make up a clock are there, but if you want to know the time, you’re out of luck.
So let us conclude this meditation on dignity with a look at how we can make it practical. What can we do to grow into this wonderful quality?
In the Taittirīya Upanishad, there is some very practical advice. When you don’t know what to think or say or do in a particular situation, think of what some wise man or woman would think, say or do in the same situation, and then do likewise.
To become dignified, think of someone you know – the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, your grandmother – and ask yourself what would they think, say, or do if they were in this situation? And then think, speak and act like them.
And one day, probably without you even knowing it, someone will think of you when they wish to grow in strength, calm, and dignity, and they’ll copy you.