What does human dignity look like in real life?
A decade ago now, I worked for UPS as a revenue auditor. “Revenue auditor” is a fancy name for someone who would measure and weigh boxes to make sure customers were billing themselves correctly.
In short time, my working ambition was rewarded (or so I interpreted it). My managers transferred me from a static position at a single conveyer belt to being able to float from line to line to help others who might be overwhelmed when too many trucks were being unloaded at once. But one person, a kindred spirit of sorts, never wanted my help.
Monica liked to engage in self-competition. She would stack up boxes next to the conveyer if she only had a hunch that just one might be wrongly marked. She refused to let a single error escape her watch. Superficially, it always looked like she was falling behind. I remember, when I had first started in my role, scanning a few labels and recording a few audits from her piles, assuming that, of course, she needed and wanted my help.
By the grace of God (in hindsight), Monica firmly and clearly reminded me that I was not as important as I thought I was. If she needed my help, she would ask for it. After that, I would often come by and ask her if I could lighten her load, and she would consistently deny that what I perceived to be a burden was any difficulty to her at all.
I remember one day quite distinctly: Monica had her typical pile of boxes stacked beside her next to the belt, and a truck pulled up behind her. The driver, without asking her, moved her boxes and complained that she had obstructed his ability to unload his truck. Though sympathetic to the driver, I could see by now that perhaps he was not as important as he believed himself to be either.
I remember coming by after their confrontation. “You’ve got to give respect to get it back, Dylan,” said Monica to me. By this time, we had come to respect one another. I knew that she had a way she liked to do things: Flawed as it may have been, seeing how many audits she could make by the end of our shift was her way of evaluating her work. She cared about her job, even liked it. And I did too, for the same reason.
Monica and I understood each other by seeing something of ourselves in one another. Or rather, we saw, however unconsciously, that same dignity inherent to all human beings created in the image of God, manifested in something we both personally held dear. Recognizing that dignity, which did not confront us in abstraction but in a real-life person with innumerable quirks and faults—that was the essence of respect. And I realized immediately that she was right: You have to give it to get it back.
* * *
Now, I can think of innumerable Biblical passages that basically say the same thing: “love your neighbor as yourself”; “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”; and so on. Human dignity, on this account, is rooted in some of the least objectionable passages in the Bible, stuff people generally admire and abide by whether or not they have any care for religion, not to mention Christianity. Yet one thing that I like about this memory is that it shows so clearly the inseparability of rights from responsibilities. Dignity, at least in this one example, both confers duty to and requires duty from its bearers.
It also shows the centrality of humility for even something so basic as mutual respect. To enter any interaction with another human being from the presumption of the superiority of one’s own worth is to fail to respect human dignity before one has even begun to try. Humility, after all, requires one to “esteem others better than himself” (Philippians 2:3).
Another thing I like about this story—though perhaps it only testifies to my own shortcomings—is that respecting the dignity of others is hard. Real, flesh-and-blood human persons do not evoke our respect as naturally as an abstract treatise on human dignity might imply. I am reminded of one Peanuts comic in which Linus shouts, “I love mankind … it’s people I can’t stand!” People, as a general rule, all tend toward some form of nerdery, some weird little obsession—such as sports, video games, philosophy, music, or literature—or at least some personal (usually minor) neurosis, like an aversion to a certain smell or fear of spiders or always having to have the last word.
And, frankly, Linus is right, even if he overstates his case. It is a common if not essential feature of personhood that any given person, with enough exposure, will grow annoying to our unsanctified hearts. Hence, again, the need for the hard work of humility.
* * *
Yet, there is another, better side to the personal oddities coin: It is precisely these little peculiarities that also bring people together to treat each other with respect.
My three-year-old son Brendan, for example, is trying his hand at being social. Most of us don’t remember that this is something we had to learn. I, at least, seem to have stupidly forgotten it. The struggle is real, but he gives a good effort. One of the most consistent topics he starts with, when he seeks to engage with another child, is dinosaurs.
“Do you like dinosaurs?” he’ll ask timidly.
It is not often, at this point, that Brendan does successfully connect with other children, usually because he is too far away or speaking too quietly for them to hear him or not looking at them or because they themselves are too young to properly socialize. But it has worked. I’ve witnessed it. And as a father I can say that witnessing that—the self-initiated start of a relationship, potentially even a friendship—is truly wonderful. And it begins with that little bit of nerdery that so many children share: a mutual love for dinosaurs.
I am reminded of a line from John Cusack in High Fidelity: “It’s not what you’re like, but what you like, that matters.” From the standpoint of abstract theorizing this insight can seem utterly shallow. But in real life it’s not as superficial as it sounds. More often than not, we get to the point of loving a person for what they are like by first finding common ground in what we like, just as Monica and I came to respect each other through our common affection for self-competition and achievement.
* * *
So what does human dignity look like? Respect. Competition. Humility. Nerdery. Dinosaurs. That’s not much of a definition. Put to conceptual criticism, I don’t doubt that this constellation of descriptors could be found wanting. But since we live in the concrete and not in the abstract, perhaps knowing that respect for human dignity can look like these things will help us to see it, or recognize its absence, in our own lives and in our neighbors’ lives as well … even if that is hard to do, and even if they are annoying.