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Dignity

28th April 2022

‘Human dignity is the same for all human beings: when I trample on the dignity of another, I am trampling on my own’.

(Pope Francis)

HOM: Thinking about your thinking.

Dignity is ‘the state of being worthy of honour or respect’. And one of the central teachings of the Bible is that all humans are worthy by virtue of being human. The dignity of humans is expressed in the book of Genesis when it says ‘So God created humankind in his image’. Dignity is not something to be earned but recognised in others because human life is intrinsically valuable.

In reality however we do treat people differently and sometimes accord greater value to some rather than others. Bias, unconscious or otherwise, can lead us to discriminate in our treatment of individuals or groups of people. And society often accords greater dignity or greater value to those who are more useful or productive. This teaching challenges that judgment call. As Pope Francis says ‘Human dignity is the same for all human beings’, and our failure to treat others with dignity, tramples not only on their dignity but on ours too.

In all societies there are marginalised groups of people but as I started writing this blog, I felt that I particularly wanted to highlight the elderly. Recent research by Professor Rebecca Levy presented in her book’ Breaking the Age Code’, showed that most words associated with ageing were negative (in western societies at least). This often leads to negative images towards the elderly, which can have damaging effects on the way they are treated.

Some years ago I came across the following poem. It was written by a nurse who wanted to highlight the importance of seeing the real person who others might dismiss as a ‘Crabbit old woman’. It is a challenge for us all to see the person behind our labels and stereotypes but as Pope Francis teaches, the dignity of all of us is closely connected.

“Look Closer Nurse”
What do you see nurse, what do you see
Are you thinking when you’re looking at me
A crabbit old woman, not very wise
Uncertain of habit, with faraway eyes
Who dribbles her food and makes no reply
When you say in a loud voice, “I do wish you’d try”
Who seems not to notice the things that you do
And forever is losing a stocking or shoe
Who, resisting or not, lets you do as you will
With bathing and feeding, the long day to fill
Is that what you’re thinking, is that what you see
Then open your eyes nurse, for you’re looking at me

I’ll tell you who I am as I sit here so still
As I rise at your biddings, as I eat at your will
I am a small child of ten with a father and mother
Brothers and sisters who love one another
A young girl of sixteen, with wings on her feet
Dreaming of soon her lover she’ll meet
A  bride soon at twenty my heart gives a leap
Remembering the vows that I promised to keep
At twenty five now I have young of my own
A woman of thirty, my young growing fast
Bound to each other with ties that will last
At forty my young sons will now grow and be gone
At fifty, once more babies play around my knee
Again we know children my loved one and me

Dark days are upon me, my husband is dead
I look to the future, I shudder with dread
For my young are all busy, rearing young of their own
And I think of the years, and the love I have known
I’m now an old woman and nature is cruel
Tis her jest to make old age look like a fool
The body, it crumbles, grace and vigour depart
There is now a stone where I once had a heart
But inside this old carcass a young girl still dwells
And now and again my battered heart swells
I remember the joys, I remember the pain
And I’m loving and living life all over again
I think of the years all too few – gone, so fast
And accept the stark fact that nothing can last
So, open your eyes nurse, open and see
Not a crabbit old woman, look closer, see ME

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