It is election season in the USA and I have been thinking a lot about this expression “human dignity.” What does it mean? How does it relate to our life choices and how we treat others and also to the priorities of the society in which we live?
How does the expression human dignity relate to climate change and racism, both of which are essentially issues of how we treat each other and how we allow our societies, governments and corporations to treat us?
I came across this term human dignity again while watching the Netflix documentary 13th about the United States’s thirteenth amendment to the constitution abolishing slavery (and how it hasn’t). You must watch it!
But anyway, the English word “dignity” comes from Latin dignitas (worthiness) by way of the French word dignité. “Human dignity,” therefore, means that which is worthy of being human or worthy of our humanity.
The Buddhists say that being born a human is the most special of gifts because only in the human realm can “enlightenment” be achieved. Even the gods cannot achieve it because they are too seduced by their own power and pleasure. We are lucky to be human.
And this human life is so short. It is over in a flash. There isn’t much time to figure out what is dignified—worthy of each our particular births—and then to get it done.
So the question is, what kind of life is actually worthy of this incredible human birth? What way acknowledges the wonder and the mystery? What way of being truly acknowledges the dignity—is worthy of—being human and having this amazing life.
For my part, I think it is beneath my dignity—my worth—to spend my life chasing around after more money than I need to meet my needs or to worry about better stuff or bigger houses or any of that. I want to explore and grow and develop and relate and love and laugh and help.
But I also feel it is beneath my dignity to ignore the suffering I see in the world. What is there possibly to do that rises to the occasion of my precious and short-lived human birth other than help? What will matter when this short-lived spark dies out and turns to ash?
Amongst all the suffering, there are two things that hurt me, the things that touch me the most. One is that our world is literally falling apart under the weight of our consuming things that don’t even make us happy which leads to climate change. The other is that we have a built a societal system that still systematically treats people of color worse than whites—racism.
Both climate change and racism are completely undignified—not worthy of our humanity.
And so I like this expression human dignity. Because it reminds me how privileged I am just to be alive. It reminds me how short my time is. It reminds me of the urgency of not getting distracted and of becoming fully human and enjoying this life while helping with the things I care about as quickly as possible.
Whatever happens (or has happened, depending on when you read this) in the American election, this is not the time to go to sleep. It never is. Sleeping or ignoring is not dignified, not worthy of our humanity.
Given the conditions of the world, how do I live up to my humanity? How will I live up to the incredible privilege of being born in this human body? How will I help? How will I be dignified?
And how will you?