Dignity is tricky. We say I am dignified (well, I don’t say such things but one might) which makes dignity seem like something immanent to me, such as intelligence. I am smart (so I say!) regardless of what you think. But dignity speaks not to me per se but to how I stand within the social. Dignity is, at the same time, a question of my posture and my social perception.
Of course, we can say this about any number of attributes. Beauty, for example. To say I am beautiful is to say that I have a quality that simultaneously is in the eye of the beholder. We might even go so far as to say the eye of the beholder creates the beauty. I remember reading an interview with Uma Thurman in which she claimed she was always the ugly duckling as a kid. It wasn’t until later, when others glommed on to her, that she became beautiful.
Now, we can say that’s silly. That she just was beautiful whether anyone recognized it or not. And that might be true. But we can’t say that about dignity. Dignity is not something you can have regardless of what others think for dignity is precisely how you hold yourself in their gaze.
Being a good man does not make one dignified. I may very well be a good man who, upon facing persecution, weeps uncontrollably and shits himself. Which is to say, you can be a good man — a serious man (pace the Coen Brothers) — but not be dignified. Dignity, in a way beauty and intelligence is not, is precisely your position within public standing. It makes no sense to say I’m dignified despite what everyone else says. Dignity is thoroughly dependent upon my stature within a community.
What, then, is dignity? Well, it certainly involves things as vague and meaningless as honor and integrity. But I think what dignity wants to articulate is a certain graceful stability amidst the social flux. It’s a kind of composure, remaining oneself in the most dire of situations. Dignity suggests fixity but I think it’s more complex than that: it’s the grace of holding one’s position amongst the social fray.
And yet it’s not Don Quixote. The certain run the risk of becoming the foolish. But the dignified maintain a kind of control, an in-the-know, that Quixote conspicuously lacks. If the social can tear away a man, rip both his body and soul apart, the dignified are those who maintain their posture and lucidity despite social, or even natural, machinations.
We tend to use the word dignity for those under the most duress — the dying and the persecuted. When someone is publicly shamed, indicted, jailed, put in the hole, beaten but somehow maintains a sense of himself — he doesn’t fight back; he doesn’t lash out; he doesn’t break down — we say he still has his dignity.
Dignity is not a word we use a lot anymore. We don’t have a social cohesion, a unified cultural economy, in which dignity could figure: one man’s dignity is another man’s foolishness. We talk of integrity, perhaps, and usually without much conviction. More often, we privilege either the character — shock jocks, Kardashians — or the “normal”. Tom Cruise gets a bit odd on Oprah and we collectively deem him nuts. We don’t want dignity as much as we want people to be like us. Despite the relatively public persecution of Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and Eric Snowden, the possibility of dignity has not even entered the conversation. And as for our upper crust, well, they certainly don’t aspire to dignity.
But when it comes to death, we still say I just want some dignity for her as she dies. I even noticed just yesterday that some horrendous corporate health conglomerate had just rebranded itself as Dignity Health. O, my soul shudders.
It seems death and disease remain a common cultural currency, perhaps the one place we still allow for, and aspire to, dignity. This is because in the face of disease and death, cultural values fall away and we face natural forces, something we can all get behind. This has been compounded by our ability to live longer as we all witness the many inevitable humiliations of age — incontinence, dementia, palsy. If dignity is maintaining some control and integrity in the face of external factors, disease and death are a grueling trial for the would-be dignified.
When we say we want some dignity in our demise, we’re saying we don’t want to be reduced to a body on an assembly line — of medicine or nature. We don’t want just to bend over for the antibiotic shot: we want to be looked in the face. We don’t want to have our limbs rendered useless and our minds a cruel prankster. We want to go with nature, not just have it sully us.
Which is why The Way of the Samurai famously declares: In a 50/50 life and death situation, always choose immediate death. The samurai insists on dignity all the way to the final moment. No samurai is going to let an anonymous nurse change his diaper. No samurai is going to have his family humor him as he babbles incoherently about the ’69 Mets. The samurai chooses to control his own fate even as his control vanishes. He chooses his own death; he chooses dignity. In his way, this is what Jack Kevorkian sought to bring to modern medical thinking — not life at all costs but dignity at all costs, even death.
But recently I’ve come to wonder: Why do we ignore dignity and then demand it come death? Disease tears us up with tireless cruelty and yet that is the precise moment at which we demand, or at least ask for, dignity. In our daily lives, in our jobs and marriages, in the public spotlight when values, belief, and integrity are at stake, we say dignity shmignity. But come some horrendous disease that has us shitting our pants and babbling like babies, well, then we demand dignity! We don’t care how we lead our life but, upon its finish, we’re supposed to remain composed.
Why? Why then, of all times, do we demand our dignity? It’s almost as if we see death not as an end but a beginning. Just like the fish in prison donning his best tough guy, the dying want to proffer some dignity as they enter the eternal.
Or is that we want to read the ending as somehow pervading the rest of one’s life backwards? I just read a “New Yorker” critique of Sex and the City which argued that the show had a lousy ending — the girl is rescued by her prince — but that that doesn’t eradicate the difficult questions the show raised along the way. So it seems to me with one’s death: it can be an awful, ugly event without casting dispersions on the rest of one’s life.
After all, death is only one moment. Why, as we ignore how we live, do we so presumptuously ask for a dignified way to die? Do we imagine a dignified death will wash away the sins of our lives? Do we believe peace found in death runs backwards, effacing all our neurotic, anxious, blasé days?
Part of me wants to say: Forget dignity in the face of death. Give the dying, who have so much to reckon, a break. Why not just let ourselves die, messy and ugly? Why not scream bloody hell as life slips away? The wisdom or lack thereof at the end doesn’t mean we were never wise. We will all have had our moments.
Or is it something the survivors want for their dying loves? Is it that we don’t want our final memories of our loved one to be of a wailing, babbling, shitting mess? In that case, the demand for a dignified death seems selfish. Let the dying wail and excrete. We survivors are strong enough to remember the beautiful, the composed, the funny and sweet. It’s up to us not to let those final moments, even if it lasts years, define our loved one’s life.
Don’t get me wrong. I, too, want dignity in death — for me as well as for my friends and family. But I can’t help but feel that this demand comes too late. After all, we’re dying all the time. For the samurai, every moment is the moment of our death and hence every moment demands dignity. To ignore it throughout one’s life and then suddenly demand it precisely when it’s most difficult to conjure seems, well, unfair.