"Dignity is often recognized as an imposed conduct, a correct system of behaviour, conforming to an external collective code that varies with culture. This may be seen to be a caricature - that quintessence of behaviour, personified by movies, butlers, dowagers, and the public appearances of kings.
It is this word, “appearance’ which brings us to the definition of dignity I have for you tonight, a dignity whose object is the preservation of, and the reverence for the independent right to be.
It is the individual, and not the collective essence of this quality that we are trying to define; a relative definition, but a distinct one. Anyone, in fact, can act dignified - anyone can wear a butler’s suit for a day.
I have a friend in whom the pain of correlative existence beats daily and threatens to submerge her. She fights - with offensive aggression - against her colossal (and imagined) enemies, and wins - wins because she continues to exist despite them - among them - and moreover, to exist as herself.
Seeing her, enraged, beautiful, scornful, profane - shouting in restaurants, crying only in empty rooms, is to see a fight for life as miraculous as that which struggles in the womb.
She is self-generating, breathing into her life a force which she creates - an internal, self-preserving, willful, metaphysical immune system which battles against malignant invasions. The cause of her problems is not important. Suffice to say that it is tragic and formidable. It is the presence of self with which she meets it that constitutes dignity, the kind of dignity with which we, in our less dramatic lives, are perhaps correspondingly less familiar.
“I am,” she says, in a series of colourful metaphors. “Despite those events, and those people, whose acts against me are designed to warp and frighten, wrench and distort me,
I am. I remain myself.”
The antithesis of formal dignity, this raw affirmation of what it means to be honours an internal and immeasurable miracle: the will, not only to live, but to live as oneself. This is the purest form of dignity: the celebration of the nobility of one human soul, vigilant and free - free because of its vigilance - as correct in its purpose for existence, as a crown on the head of its king."
*This excerpt is from an address I gave to a private club of University of California Berkeley faculty members at our monthly dinner meetings at the Men's Faculty Club.
Causes Harrison Solow Supports
Lupus Foundation of America
Museum of Tolerance