“Dignity is a quiet strength which reflects your deep honor and self-respect. It … portrays a calm awareness and generosity of spirit regardless of the environment or circumstances.” Susan C. Young
Think of someone you know, with a strong moral compass, who is not swayed by passing fancies, who is dependable and trustworthy. Who doesn’t give his or her word lightly, but having given it, always follows through. This is a person whom others go to for advice or comfort, who set an example for others.
It has been an immense privilege in my life to have met many people who are just like this. Strong people in the true sense of that word, not forceful or combative, but steady and resilient.
What word describes this confluence of qualities? The one that seems to fit best is ‘Dignity’.
Dignity is a subtle, elusive quality, but you know it when you see it. It is a quiet strength, integrity and dependability, which engenders respect and a feeling of admiration.
The English word ‘dignity’ from the Latin ‘dignitas’, carries the sense of worthiness, worth, honour; that which is fitting and proper.
With dignity therefore, there is worth and value linked to that which is fitting, proper and appropriate to the situation. So, a man or woman of dignity is worthy of honour and behaves in a way that fits the situation. Among friends they are friendly, when in a position of leadership, they are respectful and decisive when action is required. They are careful of the feelings and needs of others but are not swayed by personal considerations from doing the right thing.
From this we can see that people with dignity have inner steadiness and carry themselves with a sense of strength and integrity. And they also view the world through a lens that means they see the best in others. A dignified person with strength, integrity and goodwill in their heart looks out on a world and sees those same qualities in others.
This is reflected in their actions as well. They give their best, speak honestly, show kindness, act decisively. All this is part of dignity.
The Sanskrit word for dignity is Māhātmyam (माहात्म्यम्). This is a compound of māhā, which means ‘great’, and ātman which means ‘essential indwelling Self, or soul’. So Māhātmyam means great-souled, having a great or noble nature, high-minded, highly gifted, exceedingly wise.
Perhaps, at this point, we should resist the temptation to delve further into these concepts. We can over-analyse notions of nobility and worth and honour and, yes, dignity. We run the same risk as the watchmaker who lays out all the pieces of a clock on his workbench. All the separate elements that go to make up a clock are there, but if you want to know the time, you’re out of luck.
So let us conclude this meditation on dignity by looking at how we can develop this wonderful quality in ourselves.
The Taittirīya Upanishad tells us that when we don’t know what to think or say or do in a particular situation, we should think of what some wise man or woman would think, say or do in the same situation, and then do likewise.
To become dignified, think of someone you know – the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, your grandmother – and ask yourself what would they think, say or do if they were in this situation? And then think, speak and act like them.
And one day, probably without you ever knowing it, someone will think of you when they wish to grow in strength, calm and dignity, and they’ll copy you.