If human worth is the intrinsic life experience, then what is human dignity? In this model, it is the global term for being excellently developed in all three domains of being in a way that enhances human worth. Its elements are caring (emotion), wisdom (thought) and courage (action).
We are about to explore the global concept of dignity, which consists of caring (emotion), wisdom (thought) and courage (action). L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s story, The Wizard of Oz, nailed these three components of dignity through his not-heartless Tin Man, not-brainless scarecrow and not-cowardly lion. Each of the characters refers to an adult in the young girl Dorothy’s little rural community, suggesting that she learned important life lessons from each of them, whether by example, counter-example or both.
In our liturgical model, we have arrived at this distinction just a bit past mid-year. We still have spirituality and religion to explore. The harvest awaits. Just imagine all that remains!
I have chosen Helen Keller as a personification of dignity, because by all accounts she exhibited kindness and generosity throughout her long lifetime, not only in her political and social activism but also in her everyday dealings. She overcome extraordinary obstacles to a remarkable degree and in an exemplary fashion.
- Helen Keller, The Story of My Life (1905).
- Helen Keller, Out of the Dark: Essays, Letters and Addresses on Physical and Social Vision (1913).
- Helen Keller, The World I Live In (1908).
- Helen Keller, Optimism, an Essay (1903).
- Helen Keller, My Religion (Doubleday, Page & Company, 1927).
- links to other works by Helen Keller at the Online Book Page
Works about Helen Keller:
- Kim Nielsen, The Radical Lives of Helen Keller (NYU Press, 2004).
- Dorothy Herrmann, Helen Keller: A Life (Knopf, 1998).
- Leslie Garrett, Helen Keller: The Photographic Story of a Life (DK Children, 2004).
- Rachael A. Koestler-Grack, Helen Keller, Activist (Chelsea House Publications, 2009).
From the dark side:
Narratives on a variety of subjects:
- Mark Leibovich, Thank You for Your Servitude: Donald Trump’s Washington and the Price of Submission (Penguin Press, 2022), “concentrates less on the MAGA true believers — the likes of Steve Bannon and Marjorie Taylor Greene — than on the twisted and tormented souls in the Republican establishment who could have prevented Trump’s hostile takeover of the party but didn’t.”
Accusations of witchcraft, the resulting trials, and the misery inflicted on innocent people exemplify near-complete departures from dignity.
- Bernard Rosenthal, ed., Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
- Benjamin C. Ray, Satan and Salem: The Witch-Hunt Crisis of 1692 (University of Virginia Press, 2015).
- John Putnam Demos, Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England (Oxford University Press, 1982).
- Peter Charles Harper, The Devil’s Disciples: The Makers of the Salem Witchcraft Trials (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).
- Owen Davies, America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft After Salem (Oxford University Press, 2013).
- Malcolm Gaskill, The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World (Knopf, 2022): “. . . the stress of isolation, foul weather, disease and death led inexorably to accusations of witchcraft.”
Film and Stage
- The Innocents: Near the end of World War II, in Poland, many young women are raped and impregnated by Russian soldiers, and sent to a convent. The Mother Superior forbids them from seeking medical treatment for fear of bringing the convent to the attention of the newly installed Communist authorities. Panicked, one of the young women enlists the help of Mathilde, a Red Cross worker (in real life, she was Madeleine Pauliac), who exhibits courage, caring and wisdom in helping the young women, saving several lives, and restoring some measure of freedom to them.
- The Widow of Saint Pierre: a woman sees the dignity in a murderer, and her husband supports her, but tragically, this costs them all.
- A Night to Remember: If you were aboard a sinking ship, how would you behave? This dramatization of the Titanic sinking offers a way of looking at human dignity – life condensed in time - because each of us is headed for certain death; our challenge is not to act that way but to act in a way that best honors living beings.
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1808) (approx. 34-40’), is widely recognized as one of three masterpieces from Beethoven in the genre of piano concerto, along with his 3rd and his 5th. As often happens with great works, this concerto was poorly received when Beethoven premiered it, departing as it did from several musical conventions; that is what Beethoven needed to do to express his ideas, which he could not confine within those conventions. Schnabel in 1933, Kempff in 1939, Hess in 1952 (part 1; part 2), Haskil in 1955, Fleisher in 1959, Gulda in 1960, Rudolf Serkin in 1962, Gilels in 1968, Moravec in 2003, Kissin in 2008, Lewis in 2010, Pires in 2014, Vogt in 2018, Cascioli in 2021 and Zimerman in 2021, have given us excellent recorded performances.
- Allegro moderato begins with an opening theme in the solo piano, an unusual way to open a concerto, which usually is introduced by the orchestra. The theme is a bold statement of self-assurace, not shouted but stated in a manner that leaves no doubt that the solist has taken charge. Soloist and orchestra explore the theme, stated in note sequence 4-4-4-1, throughout the movement.
- Andante con moto is an extended contemplation of the first movement, as if to ask, “what does this all mean?”
- Rondo; Vivace opens without pause following the Andante movement. Whatever the protagonist has decided to do, in whatever state of resolution or non-resolution the question of meaning has been left, soloist and orchestra proceed quickly, vigorously and without hesitation, conveying a feeling that the soloist has life under control, and that he will handle whatever challenges may arise.
Elizabeth Cotten was a poor girl from the American South who played guitar, sang and composed songs with a remarkable humanity.
- “Freight Train and other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes” album
- “Shake Sugaree” album
- “When I'm Gone” album
- “Live!” album
- Elizabeth visits schools in Portland in 1978
- Video, part 1; part 2
Other works illustrating dignity:
- In art and perhaps in life, Pocohontas was brave and empathetic and humble, with a clear understanding of humanity’s place in nature. Elliott Carter captured a bit of that in his ballet Pocohontas (1938).
- Hovhaness, Symphony No. 8, Op. 179, “Arjuna” (1947): in Hindu literature, Arjuna is a demigod, representing the most admirable characteristics: courage, strength, humility, intelligence, wisdom, and commitment to justice and duty. These characteristics well illustrate the omni-value of dignity.
- Suk: Zrání (Ripening), Op.34 (1917)
- Dukas, Ariane et Barbe-Bleue (Ariadne and Bluebeard) (1906): in this opera, Ariane becomes Bluebeard’s sixth wife. Convinced that his other six wives are alive, she opens the forbidden seventh door, and discovers them living in darkness and misery. Then she carries out their escape, and instead of having Bluebeard free, sets him free.
- Raga Purvi (Poorvi) is a Hindustani raag usually performed around sunset (performances by Shankar, Bismillah Khan and Joshi).
- Emilie Mayer, Piano Quartet No. 1
- Emilie Mayer, Piano Quartet No. 2
- Wayne Escoffery, “Vortex” creates an image of a person whose circumstances threatened to swirl him down a drain, yet he endures and thrives, with class and grace.
- Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions (McDougal Litell, 1997); and This Mournable Body: A Novel (Greywolf Press, 2018): “Both novels are inspiring, not in spite of Tambu’s hopeless situation but because through it all she never loses sight of herself while, at the same time, never underestimating the brutal reality of her predicament.”
- Véronique Olmi, Bakhita: A Novel of the Saint of Sudan (Other Press, 2019): “ . . . ‘Bakhita’ unfolds a distinctive array of timely concerns — the subjugation of women of color, human trafficking, female solidarity, personal and institutional conflicts that knot together issues of race, class, gender and religion — and explores them through the suffering, willpower and undiminished dignity of a small frightened girl turned resolute young woman turned gentle old nun.”
- Stephen King, The Institute: A Novel (Scribner, 2019): “How do you maintain your dignity and your humanity in an environment designed to strip you of both?”
- Richard Flanagan, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams: A Novel (Knopf, 2021): “It is partly a family drama about three middle-aged siblings trying to save their mother from dying, but mostly it’s a cry of alarm about what we choose to pay attention to — and what gets lost in the scramble for success and tasteful design.”
- William Wordsworth, “The Westmoreland Girl”
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Joan Baez, Forever Young