Dignity and Respect


I want to take a short break from what at least one of my readers has called “depressing” reflections on nursing home conditions to dwell briefly on the suggestion that Harry Lewis made in response to my introduction many weeks ago:

Sometime you can parse the relation of respect to dignity. There is actually rather a lot of talk about DISrespect these days, so much so that the word has been turned into a verb. This thought is rather fuzzy in my mind, but it seems that people would be more likely to be treated with respect if they acted with dignity, and dignity is today considered inauthentic, like using the dessert spoon while eating the entree.

After some reading and reflection, I have come to consider dignity as an inherent quality of all human beings, what I will call “inherent dignity.”  Respect, on the other hand, is a sentiment demonstrated through certain behaviors offered in response to perceived inherent dignity.  Respect may also be earned by “worthy”, or as Harry would perhaps say, “dignified” behavior.

The notion of inherent dignity is, I think at root, a religious one.  For example, Daniel Groody writes in “Globalization, Spirituality and Justice”, p.109:

Catholic social teaching believes that human beings, created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27), have by their very existence an inherent value, worth, and distinction. This means that God is present in every person, regardless of his or her race, nation, sex, origin, orientation, culture, or economic standing. Catholic Social Teaching asserts that all human beings must see within every person both a reflection of God and a mirror of themselves, and must honour  and respect this dignity as a divine gift.

Apart from a creationist or religious belief, the notion that, as human beings, we share the same “essence” encourages us to believe in the worth and value of others as we believe in our own worth and value.

There is little about an elderly man or woman in a nursing home that would elicit a natural response of respect. Most are physically ravaged by age and illness, possibly scarred or handicapped, stooped, and weak; many are angry or resentful about their condition, tired, lonely, and hungry. Under these circumstances, some are incapable of acting with dignity. Whether we recognize these individuals as children of God or simply as fellow human beings, determines whether we acknowledge their inherent dignity and respond with respect.

As a society, I think we have come to value “productivity” in all its forms as the highest possible good, the most valued human quality.  Those who are not “productive” for whatever reason—age, mental or physical disability, social or financial disadvantage—are considered of less value and are regarded as less deserving of respect. This, I believe, is why we allow the oldest members of our communities to live in conditions that, when we come face to face with them, appall us and make us afraid of our own end-of-life circumstances.

If you were to ask an elderly person, faced with entering a nursing home what he or she fears most, I believe (and research has shown) that the answer would amount to the inability to make one’s own decisions or the loss of control – control of one’s body, of one’s surroundings, of one’s schedule.  It is extremely difficult to maintain a sense of personal dignity, and therefore an expectation that one deserves respect under these conditions.  Some elders do so.  They are the ones we consider dignified; the ones we admire and hope to emulate.  The ones we may respect.  But the others?

The way we treat the elderly, indeed, the way we treat all those who are more vulnerable than we imagine ourselves to be, says a great deal about who we are as a society.

For this reason, I am writing about the “depressing” conditions in nursing homes.

The Anatomy of Respect

The previous two posts have illustrated what I believe is integral to respect.  The giver of respect must truly listen to or see the perspective and experience of the other and make an honest effort to understand that perspective.  The receiver of respect comes away with a sense of having been heard, understood and accepted.  Agreement is not necessarily part of this experience, though it often occurs.

This is not, as they say, “rocket science”.  I’m not stating anything here that hasn’t been taught, expounded, written, preached and sung countless times by more articulate and wiser voices than mine.  But because the examples I’ve given are so ordinary, so prosaic, so simple, I hope they might awaken in you some memories about times and places in which you have been moved to offer, or blessed to receive, signs of respect as well. I believe we could enrich one another’s comprehension of respect by sharing some of those incidents with each other.  Thereby, we might understand that respecting one another, at this time in our history and this place in our world, is not some Herculean task that demands a great leader, prophet or seer, to show us the way, but the stuff of our everyday lives, nearer to us than our own shadows, perhaps.

The other side of the coin of respect is fear.  Perhaps that will seem like too strong a word to describe feelings that often are labeled or expressed as dismissal, discomfort, embarrassment or indifference.  But I have always found that fear comes into the equation in some way for me.  Do I feel safe or unsafe in some very subtle way?  Am I afraid that I will be even slightly diminished?

With the above reflections in mind, I invite you to post some descriptions of your own experiences with respect/disrespect and the conclusions you have drawn from them.  Please keep in mind the guidelines I established in the introduction.  Please also feel free to comment on anything I have written.  I look forward to reading what you will bring to this conversation.


Respect: Accidental

Sometimes an act of respect simply happens, without either party involved noticing or consciously identifying it as such at the time, though usually one, or both, come away feeling good about the interaction.

During my work life as an executive assistant at Radcliffe College and Harvard University, I served a total of six deans, a president, and a vice president. I plan to write more about executive assistants and respect in future posts, but the incident I’m describing today occurred toward the end of my career and happened at the school of engineering.

The workday of an executive assistant is full of a long string of interruptions; sometimes the interruptions are themselves interrupted. Priority projects are extremely difficult to complete.  Anything that needs focus, concentration, and quiet must usually be done before or after work hours, when co-workers and bosses are not in the office.  I and my fellow EAs at the school of engineering, as we were wont to call ourselves, came up with a tentative plan to claim some “quiet time” for ourselves during the workday by closing our doors from time to time so that we could concentrate on tasks that needed, well, concentration.

At the suggestion of another EA that we ask our bosses if this plan were acceptable to them,  I looked for an appropriate time to speak with the dean I was then supporting, who happened to be new in his role.  From my perspective, the conversation did not go well.  He seemed, shall I say, resistant to the idea.  Up until then, he been very understanding and supportive of my work needs, so I was disappointed and a bit surprised by his reaction.  I felt deflated by the end of the conversation, and he seemed annoyed.

I was in the EA business for a long time and considered myself very adaptable, resourceful and tough. I tried to start each new day fresh and cheerful, so when the dean came into the office the next day, we exchanged a “good morning” and asked each other how we were.  I said my usual, “Fine.”  A few moments later he returned to my desk and said, “Tell me more about your need for quiet time.”  My heart smiled.  I thanked him for asking and described how difficult it was to get things done with many interruptions, however legitimate they might be.  He described his feeling that it was important for the dean’s office, and the dean, to have an “open door policy” and to be available throughout business hours to faculty, students and anyone who might need us.  I expressed my understanding and agreement and explained that I thought simply closing the door part way might encourage those who were headed toward the office to think again about the importance of their errand and whether it might wait until another time.  We didn’t “settle” on a policy, but by the end of the conversation, we better understood each other.  I respected him even more than I had previously, especially for his courage, sensitivity, and generosity in continuing a conversation that had gone badly the previous day.  I felt heard, and because I felt heard, I felt respected.

Respect: Intentional

I don’t intend for these blog entries to be merely “personal,” but I thought I might begin with a couple of personal anecdotes that demonstrate my own experience of feeling respected.  The first is an example of what I will call “intentional” respect.

As I mentioned in the introductory post, I retired a year ago.  The precipitating reason for my retirement was chronic pain that had been growing gradually worse over a three-year period.  I’d undergone a number of diagnostic tests. No cause could be identified, and my primary care physicians were stymied. I was frustrated with the medical system and anxious about possible reasons for the pain.  Often when I attempted to talk about “my pain” to friends and professionals alike, eyes would glaze over and the subject would be changed.  Most people were not uncaring; they just didn’t have any idea how I felt or how to help me.

After months of painstakingly working the healthcare system, I was referred to a pain clinic near Boston, MA where I was given a choice of two clinicians, a woman and a man.  I chose the woman, imagining that she would better understand me.  She did not, unfortunately, have an opening for over a month, so I reluctantly agreed to see the man, a pain psychologist, who had an opening the following week.

I imagined I would be invited to join a therapy group where, with other chronic pain sufferers, I would describe my struggles with pain, and we would support one another with understanding, sympathy and suggestions for various pain management strategies. Instead, I entered a one-on-one therapy relationship.  At our first meeting, my doctor asked me to describe what had brought me to the clinic.  I gave a succinct description of the pain, the various tests I had undergone, the various specialists I’d seen, and how I had been referred to him.  He took a deep breath and said, “That’s an impressive description.”  Strange, but I felt immediately recognized and validated.  He briefly described the theory of pain management that he and his colleagues embraced and what we would cover in our sessions, and gave me the names of two books, asking me to choose one and read it in between our meetings.  I immediately bought both books and started reading them simultaneously.  I was going to get this right!  I desperately wanted this therapy to work.

He had seen my desperation but wasn’t thrown off balance by it and didn’t judge me.  He accepted my desperation, and gradually taught me to accept it too – it, my pain and much more.  I quickly learned that he was less interested in what went on in the days between sessions and more interested in what happened during the sessions themselves.  My “reporting in” behavior was kindly humored and accepted, but somewhere in the midst of a session, he would ask me to stop, breathe, and identify what I was feeling at that moment.  That’s where the windows into healing occurred – in those “present moments” when I simply told him about my feelings and he listened – listened to me, as I had never been listened to before in my life – with intensity, concentration, acceptance, and respect.  I was allowed to be who I actually was in that moment without any judgement or commentary.  At the end of each session he would remind me that I should sit quietly in my car before driving away and continue the noticing.

Over the six months of therapy I read both books and took copious notes.  I took baby steps into the practice of mindfulness and began to understand how my life experiences had resulted in the repetitive stress that had produced my pain.  I began to treat my body more gently and to listen to it and my mind/heart more carefully.  Yes, this story has a happy ending.  I am not pain free, but I now recognize the pain that I struggled against as a “gift”; the pain that was once the center of my life is now on the periphery.  I am feeling healthier, more alive, and more aware of myself, others, and the world around me.

And one of the keys to my healing was the experience of being truly respected.