Our human dignity is what can define our very humanity. It can be what raises us from above the animal realm and it can be an expression of our spirituality. Our dignity or honour can be a source of tremendous strength and motivation. Dignified people can be the ones who find it most difficult, of course, to suffer from any indignity, but they can also be the ones whose dignity motivates them to carry on. In difficult circumstances, however, our dignity can still be hard to maintain. In a complex and grave medical situation, it is very important to be sure to make every attempt to obtain clear consent from a patient. Then the baseline in terms of standards of care is often the attempt to maintain a person's dignity for them, both in terms of the level of treatment offered and throughout any treatment procedure.
Human society has, of course, a moral obligation to try to provide a basic level of care to all its members as best it can. I would suggest that each individual can reply to this with an acceptance of what society is able to offer. But then the question asked is: “should we not demand our rights?” Within a prosperous, or indeed greedy, society we must. But when resources are limited it becomes a nonsense to be trying to demand our rights. We may then try to demand our share but when we have done all the demanding we can we still need to come to an acceptance for ourselves.
And then rather the attitude of the wise patient can be to try to maintain their dignity no matter what happens. How might this be done? Is there not something curiously beautiful about the upright stance of the human being? Standing raises us above many animals physically but also is linked to human dignity. We maintain our dignity by 'holding our heads high'. In this way a sense of dignity is linked to that of posture. Our postural or proprioceptive sense has been termed our sixth sense. when we become very aware of our posture and movement it can have an almost mystical effect on the mind for this reason. This sense is also a way in which our body image is formed in the mind, an image free of pain or pleasure – neutral and steady. The body and its pain can in this way be perceived as two different things. In times of pain this image can be a refuge. This is important. To find a mental refuge from pain within the body helps us to stay with it, not to want to get away or to resent the body.
This body image is one of the qualities and one of the fruits of a detached attitude toward the body. This sense of detachment can be well established or an ability to at least detach the mind momentarily or to some degree. Take the example of a situation in which someone is in need of of a gynaecological investigation. For the patient, so exposed, to look away whilst this examination takes place, or to look only when necessary may be a way they can keep their dignity. We can also relate to the body in an impersonal way to encourage detachment, even with a little healthy contempt, on occasion exclaiming, perhaps, with a smile:
“Oh, bodies! Can't rely on them, can we.”
“Sometimes bodies can be really disgusting, can't they.”
The mind that acknowledges these facts at the crucial moment can protect its own dignity and there need be no loss of love. At least there will be no loss if the love is real, if it is a giving love.
Often the great human drama is played out most visibly and hence most powerfully in the life of the stars of film or music. We can see there how strongly certain events can effect our highest values or aspirations. I remember as a child how my father was a great lover of Elgar's music. He particularly loved Elgar's cello concerto. There was a particular cellist, the charismatic Jacqueline Du Pre and her genius husband, the conductor Daniel Barenboim whose rendering of this concerto was divine. My father loved it and I think was a little in love with Jacqueline. Then the tragedy: Jacqueline contracted the neurological disease multiple sclerosis. My father was very sad for her. As the story goes, the couple then separated. Whatever really happened, to my father it appeared as if the husband deserted his wife in her time of most need. My father was devastated. His dream was shattered. To some degree so was mine.
I have no idea what really happened to Daniel and Jacqueline but perhaps the great romance could not be sustained through the indignities of her disease. Perhaps the love if not the romance could have been maintained if her dignity could have been more properly cared for, who knows? This was anyway no small matter for my father, it was the beginning of a big breakdown. I found myself going on to specialise in the care of people with neurological disorders as though I was caring for Jacqueline.
It was in this crucible that I realised the importance of dignity, and the fact that holding it foremost in our minds through difficult times was how our true love and our spirituality could be protected.
I offer this for your reflection