Several years ago, when I was serving as the chaplain at Ogden Regional Medical Center in Utah, I noticed an elderly gentleman walk past my office carrying a pink toiletry bag one day. He wasn’t moving very quickly. His feet shuffled and his arthritic hands seemed to have difficulty grasping the bag. I wondered where he was going. After I finished some office work, I went out on the hospital floor to do some rounds. As I passed an open door, I saw the elderly gentleman reaching into the pink bag. With each dive into the bag, his hand emerged with a different makeup applicator. His wife, also elderly, was a non-responsive patient in the hospital room. As she lay asleep on the bed in her hospital gown, covered by hospital issue bedding and a colorful homemade Afghan, her husband applied lipstick, blush, mascara, and eye shadow to her sleeping face. “She wouldn’t want to be seen in public without wearing makeup,” he told me, flighting back the tears that were lodged firmly in his throat. “She always wears makeup, and she would be so embarrassed for anyone, even the doctors, to see her without it.” This gentleman was not what you might call an expert makeup artist. His color choices were suspect. The orange (and certainly not red) lipstick seemed haphazardly applied around her mouth, and some even ended up on her teeth. The blush was applied heavily and it made her look like she was sunburned. The eyeshadow was applied unevenly, and her left eyelid was darker than her right. She looked silly. And yet, when I saw the effort he had put into caring for his wife, I never recalled seeing anything more beautiful. It wasn’t a makeup demonstration I was witnessing. It was true human love and compassion.
The elderly man was demonstrating how much he cared for his wife. He had clearly no idea how to apply makeup. His wife’s orange lipstick made her look somewhat clownish. I’m not certain the “eyeshadow” he used was actually eyeshadow. But the beauty of the moment was the care and compassion this man demonstrated for upholding his wife’s sense of dignity. He knew she’d be tormented by awakening to discover strangers had seen her without makeup. He knew it was important to her. He knew he hadn’t the foggiest idea what he was doing. And yet he did his best. This man came to visit his wife every day while she was hospitalized. And every day, he would apply her makeup. Poorly. And beautifully at the same time. Demonstrating the care and compassion that we only seem to read about in romantic fairy tales. This man truly loved his wife with all his being.
Our baptismal covenant reminds us that we commit “to respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP p. 305). But what does that mean? What do you think of when you hear the word “dignity”? I think of many things. One of those is the daily interaction I witnessed between that man and his wife. You see, in a certain sense, you could argue that his makeup skills were so poor that he was actually denying her dignity by making her look silly. But no one, at least not anyone with a heart, would ever say that’s the case. No, they would say, “look at the effort that man is putting toward upholding his wife’s dignity.” In cases such as this, the effort was worth far more than the execution.
Dignity is an inward feeling. It’s a feeling of self-worth. It’s a feeling of autonomy. It even has components of self-differentiation. The elderly man knew his wife felt a certain way about being seen without makeup. So he was upholding her dignity by ensuring no one would have to see her without it. It was far less about how she actually looked and far more about how she felt. As ridiculous as this woman appeared, her husband’s efforts did wonders to protect the integrity of something dear to her. And absolutely every nurse, doctor, and yes, chaplain, who visited with them told him his wife looked beautiful. Because she did. Even though she didn’t. Why? Because she held on to her dignity.
Sadly, dignity isn’t something that everyone possesses. I’ve spent time with people who have little or no dignity. I’ve had conversations with convicted felons who will be locked up in prison for the rest of their lives. Every day they wake up in the same 11-by-4-foot cell. They share a bunk with another inmate, their “celly”. Their shared cell has a toilet/sink combination with no toilet seat and no privacy. When one of them is having a bowel movement, the other gets to awkwardly sit in the same room as it happens. They eat whatever food is offered. They must stay “in bounds” at all times. In prison culture, even if they do happen to be friends with someone of a different race, they’ll be beaten up if they interact with that person while they’re out “in the yard.” They wear the same clothing day in and day out and their life is boring and sometimes feels meaningless. Life in prison is quite frequently life without dignity. And there’s an argument to be made that imprisonment is a consequence of our behavior. “They did it to themselves!” you’ll hear people say. And maybe they did. I don’t know. But notice our baptismal covenant doesn’t say, “the dignity of every human person who hasn’t behaved badly.” It says, “every human person.” And there are plenty of people in need of dignity who are victims and not perpetrators.
Poverty is one of the leading reasons people lack dignity. In a culture where our value is determined by “what we do for a living,” how much dignity is there when someone is unemployed? How much dignity is there when someone doesn’t have the means to put food on the table? When someone makes the decision to go hungry because there’s only enough food for their children? When someone must ask for help, knowing there’s a chance they will be belittled and ridiculed afterward? Probably little-to-none. And poverty is usually not the fault of the person suffering from it. In many cases, it’s generational, situational, or systemic. Sometimes all of the above. And yet, people who live in poverty are as deserving of dignity as everyone else.
That’s one reason our baptismal covenant is so important. Episcopalians truly must constantly ask ourselves if our behavior is in line with this covenant. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t. And when we don’t, we have to acknowledge it and take corrective action. Respecting the dignity of every human person is one of the most important tasks for which we are responsible. And it really isn’t that hard. We simply have to decide how we might like to be treated in a similar situation, and then treat others accordingly.
Any measure of someone’s dignity that can be upheld is important. What does this look like for Christians? Well, we can look to Matthew’s gospel for some answers. Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, care for the imprisoned and the ill (read Matthew 25:31-46). And maybe it’s even more than that. Maybe it’s giving someone their autonomy back. Some decision-making capability. Isn’t there more dignity in having a choice? In exercising our will? If someone gives you ice cream, do you appreciate knowing you get to choose between chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry? Or would you prefer that someone simply make that decision for you? I’m guessing you appreciate choice. And allowing for choice is one of the ways we can uphold someone’s dignity.
What if someone abuses our kindness? What if someone who isn’t low on dignity decides they want to take advantage of our generosity? Well, then that’s on them. But we’re not going to compromise our own values simply because someone else might take advantage. The way I see it, if I help you and you lied about needing help, then shame on you. But if I had means to help you, you needed my help, and I simply refused, then shame on me. I’d rather help someone who doesn’t truly need my help than to ignore someone because there’s a possibility they might not actually need my help.
Did the elderly woman truly need her makeup applied by her husband every day, even though she was non-responsive? No. Does the homeless man who comes to the food pantry truly need an option to choose between red beans and black beans? No. Does the imprisoned convict truly need visitors from the outside world to talk to and to pray with in order to survive? No. But all of these affect their dignity. The woman’s desire to wear makeup upheld her dignity. The homeless man having the opportunity to say, “I want red beans, please”, upholds his dignity. A visit from an outsider to an incarcerated person upholds his or her dignity. Our dignity is important. And it is important that we defend it.