On Living With Dignity

A certain aspect of personal development has been rattling around my head for the better part of a couple weeks. The concept of carrying oneself with dignity isn't something I see written about very often.

In episode 60, "Writ in His Boots," of the podcast Roderick on the Line, John tells a story about a man he saw on a train in New York. The man (and the boots he was wearing) projected some sort of overwhelming sense of dignity (without ever saying a word) that left John speechless. This is largely a comedic podcast but any longtime listener will be able to discern the earnestness in John's voice while he tells this story. This man truly affected John in a pretty profound way. This leads into a discussion with Merlin about what it means to live with dignity.

I think part of the reason this won't leave my head is because I'm having a hard time operationalizing what dignity actually means. Before much can be done with a concept scientifically it must first be operationalized. Basically, there has to be a consensus about what, precisely, we mean when we say a certain word. Despite all my best efforts, "dignity" is evading my best efforts to operationalize it.

The obvious cop out answer is to see what Merriam Webster has to say about it, or, "Bearing, conduct, or speech indicative of self-respect or appreciation of the formality or gravity of an occasion or situation." That's a good start, but I think it's so much more than that.

A helpful starting point may be laying out what dignity or living with dignity certainly isn't. My incomplete list includes:

  • Stylishness

  • Wealth

  • Sarcasm

  • Bravado

  • Loudness

I think a misunderstanding of someone who has dignity would be equating it with some kind of swagger built around stylish clothes, a nice car, or other consumer goods. The dignity John talks about in the podcast and the kind that intrigues me so much has nothing to do with owning luxury (as far as consumerism goes) goods. While it's certainly possible to be dignified and wealthy (or any of these other characteristics), it would be a mistake to think living with dignity is some sort of amalgamation of these traits.

Unfortunately, describing what something is not isn't enough to really hone in on what it is. If dignity isn't any of those above words or ideas what gets us closer to a workable concept? What words come to mind when I think of someone who lives with dignity?

  • Respect(ed)

  • Quiet

  • Confident

  • Deep

  • Kind

  • Deliberate

  • Wise

I think being dignified as having a quiet confidence about the way you interface with the world. It's not something you announce or attain after attending a class. You don't get a certificate after going through "dignity school." I think it's something that accumulates over time when the right decisions are made over and over (and enough bad ones are learned from). I think it represents a certain level of "skillfulness of being" that is slowly earned over time. Maybe that's why my default mental image of a dignified person is someone much older than me. While that may be my default I don't think it necessarily holds true that you have to be elderly to be dignified. I'm intrigued by the idea of living with dignity even as a 25 year old. It seems to me that living with dignity is a much more meaningful goal than productivity, efficiency, or any other favorite concept of personal development writers.

As a student of positive psychology I tend to lean toward the mindset that almost any ability can be developed with conscious effort and practice. Positive psychology has shown there are concrete things we can do to increase our happiness and well-being. Gratitude journals, mindfulness practices, and exercise have all been empirically shown to affect how we feel about ourselves and the world around us. But what is the equivalent intervention for developing the quiet dignity that will make someone sitting across from you on the bus think, "I don't know what it is... but something about that guy is awesome."

I don't know exactly what it is either but I can't help but think if we all had more of it the world might be a little bit better place.

Send me a link if you write a response on your own blog or send me a tweet with your thoughts. I welcome your ideas. This isn't a simple concept and I'd love to expand my understanding of what dignity really means.

Photo courtesy of United Nations Photo