Why dignity? It's all about the cookie.

To even begin answering this question, we must first ask, “What is dignity, anyway?"

Dignity is one of those words that is thrown around quite a bit but very few actually know what it means. To be honest, I didn’t know before I started to explore it more. Furthermore, as I pitch my newest project to potential sponsors and attempt to get people engaged in this conversation, I am sensing that many others have the same confusion about dignity.

So, let me try and clear this up a bit...

Very simply stated, dignity is our inherent birthright to always feel valued and worthy. We are born with the right to always have the experience that we matter, are appreciated, and have something to contribute to others and to the world. A violation of dignity is when we don't feel this about ourselves based on what someone else has done or said. Any time we feel less than, not valued, not appreciated, not enough, or that we don't matter, this is a violation of our own dignity.

Starting to make sense more? Let's dig a little deeper with the help of Dr. Donna Hicks of Harvard University and expert consultant for The Dignity Project...

Dignity is an internal state of peace that comes with the recognition and acceptance of the value and vulnerability of all living things...

Dignity is a human phenomenon. Our desire for it is our highest common denominator. We all want it, seek it, and respond in the same way when others violate it. No one wants to be harmed, and we have powerful self-preservation reactions to violations. These reactions come at a great cost, however: our need for self-preservation comes at the expense of human connection. We end up alienated from one another, going about our business as if relationships did not matter. But they do matter. Our desire for connection is deep in our genes. We are living in a false state of alienation. The quality of our lives and our relationships could be vastly improved if we learned how to master the art and science of maintaining and honoring dignity.”

I came across the above statement while exploring the topic for my new project, DignityU. For research, immersed myself in the book, Dignity by Dr. Hicks. While I started reading this book as part of my research, I certainly didn’t anticipate that it would impact my life the way it has. This only solidifies my resolve that this is the right project at the right time.

Nine years ago, I launched RESPONSE ABILITY: A Call for Courageous Leadership — a powerful exploration into the concept of bystander intervention and a new kind of leadership. This project continues to explore those moments in life when we see a situation where someone else is perpetrating a problem behavior (hazing, bullying, sexual violence, discrimination, etc.) while we, as bystanders, determine whether we are going to be passive by doing nothing or powerful by standing up, stepping in, and speaking out. This program has been delivered in over 40 national fraternity and sorority organizations, on nearly 400 college campuses, and by over 500 trained and certified facilitators. This message is still alive and real today through my challenging yet inspiring keynote presentation. 

We are now ready to elevate the RESPONSE ABILITY conversation to a new level with a fresh perspective — to take another approach to the many problems we see in our society, and especially on our college campuses. It is time to demand — not wish, not hope, not desire — that we honor the dignity of others…and ourselves.

While bystander intervention looks at our willingness, or unwillingness, to act in the face of a problem situation that others are perpetrating, we now turn the spotlight on those times when we, ourselves, may do or say something that violates the dignity of others.

Whereas certain behaviors like bullying, hazing, and sexual abuse intentionally violate the dignity of others, Dr. Hicks goes on to say, "We do not deliberately hurt each other just for the fun of it. We are often unaware of the ways we routinely and subtly violate each other's dignity. At the same time, we are not fully aware of the power we have to make people feel good by recognizing their worth. This lack of awareness comes from not being educated about dignity. Once we become aware, we can learn how to manage our emotional reactions, which often end up hurting others, and how to communicate that we value others.

Although dignity is part of our human inheritance, knowing how to nurture it is not. The actions and reactions of dignity need to be learned!

It is time to be educated. It is time to learn. It is time to nurture dignity.

It is time to empower ourselves to demand a level of dignity in our own behavior that will not only be a reflection of who we are and what we are committed to, but will value others and their unique contribution to society.

To be clear, this is not an allegation that you are not honoring dignity. You may or may not be. Most likely, there are times you do and there are times you don’t. This is an opportunity for us all to take stock in our own actions and our own words to determine if we are leaving people with the experience that they are valued and worthy. It is time that we all take responsibility — not blame or fault — for the role we play in bringing dignity to our relationships, whether it be with family members, friends, co-workers, peers, or total strangers.

So, why dignity? Why explore this phenomenon as a means to higher confidence and self-esteem, as well as stronger and more meaningful relationships? Why study this subject as a means to eradicate some of our biggest problems like violence, abuse, and harassment?

According to Dr. Hicks, “What seems to be of the utmost importance to humans is how we feel about who we are. We long to look good in the eyes of others, to feel good about ourselves, to be worthy of others’ care and attention. We share a longing for dignity — the feeling of inherent value and worth. When we feel worthy, our value is recognized, we are content. When a mutual sense of worth is recognized and honored in our relationships, we are connected. A mutual sense of worth also provides the safety necessary for both parties to extend themselves, making continued growth and development possible.”

As I continue to work with national fraternity and sorority organizations, I ask this, “Isn’t this what we are in the business of? Weren’t we founded to create meaningful relationships and provide a safe environment for growth and development?” I assume you answered “yes” to both of these questions. Now that we are aligned on what we are here for, here is the next question, “Are we always honoring the dignity of all members so that this is accomplished?”

I truly believe that many problems can be prevented, at least minimized, when we allow ourselves to be aware of the dignity we may violate by our own actions or words. I am under no illusion that all problems will be eradicated with this work; however, through this awareness, we will be able to transform our actions to be ones of empowerment, value, and worth. When a fraternity member is about to haze a new member, he can stop himself in the moment and presence the dignity he is about to violate, and then transform that action in the moment. When a sorority sister is about to make a comment about a fellow sister's body, she can stop herself and tranform the words out of her mouth. The same can be said for any acts of violence, abuse or harassment. When we realize that we have the power to transform our actions in a moment of time, we are able to honor the dignity of others — and ourselves — to not only prevent problem situations but, most importantly, leave others with the experience that they are valued and worthy — that they matter!

When dignity is violated in any way, it causes self-preservation reactions usually in the form of “fight or flight.” As we continue to look at this in the context of fraternities and sororities, when our members have their dignity violated, they may “fight” back in an effort to restore their own dignity. I believe this is why we have a persistent and constant hazing problem on college campuses — the continuous conversation of, “I got hazed so I’ll haze future pledges even harder!” Or, our reaction to a violation can also show up in members taking “flight” away from the organization. Members will quit the organization while others will simply disconnect emotionally. The same can be said for many other types of organizations like sports, music, families, and even the corporate environment.

While there are certainly direct prevention programs across this country that are effective and powerful — hazing prevention, sexual violence prevention, etc. — we must also look for indirect approaches to the problems we face as a means to fulfilling the intentions of each of our respective organizations and community as a whole.

We must empower our members — of our organizations and of society — to ask and answer three very important questions:

1. If I were to say I conducted myself with dignity, what would my behavior look like?
2. If I wanted to treat someone with dignity, what would I do?
3. What does it look like when I violate someone’s dignity or compromise my own?

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I have been personally impacted by this research and the words of Dr. HIcks. On a recent Monday, I found myself in line at Jason's Deli to get lunch. In full disclosure, I was not in a pleasant mood -- it was one of those typical Mondays and I was irritable, annoyed, and cranky. I was hoping some time out of the office for lunch would help me change my attitude. As I stood behind a man as he placed his order with the nicest, most genteel, middle-aged, Muslim woman behind the counter, I witnessed his condescending and offensive tone with her -- rude, actually. Not only rude but offensive. While I was at first appalled by his behavior, I immediately noticed that I was on the same track -- I was about to treat her the same way he was, given my mood at the time.

Because of my newfound awareness around dignity, I took stock of what was about to happen and I, in that moment of time, transformed how I was going to treat this woman. I walked up, greeted her with a smile and a few kind words, placed my order and thanked her for her service to me. In short, I honored her dignity. As soon as I placed my sandwich order and paid, I noticed a wrapped, gluten-free chocolate chip cookie -- my favorite combination! My eyes lit up and I took the cookie, apologized that I had already paid, and proceeded to take my wallet out again. This is when she gently looked at me, smiled, and said, "Don't worry about it -- the cookie is on me today -- you have been my best customer so far!"

In one way, it's sad that I became her "best customer" simply by treating her the way she deserves to be treated -- with dignity. Yet, it's a very simple, yet powerful, demonstration of what honoring other's dignity makes available: a meaningful connection. I made her day in that moment -- and she made mine. I went back to the office as a transformed human being.

While it's not about the cookie, it really is about the cookie. It's about honoring people's dignity...and our own.

It is time that we demand dignity.

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