Living with Dignity
Relationship with Oneself
Before understanding self-respect, it's good to know which category of relationships it belongs to.
Relationships are optional or obligatory, for pleasure or necessity. So is the relationship with one's self, that can be nourished, ignored, enjoyed, abused, prolonged ... or ended. There are two basic types of relationships with oneself:
What is Dignity?
Dignity is what we think of ourselves, whatever others think of us. Dignity is not reputation, that many people confuse with dignity, measuring their own self-respect and how they see themselves by how others see and respect them. Dignity is the barometer of pride we take in our actions and qualities we believe to make a difference in our life or others'; a self-portrait each of us has to paint alone before they can finally enjoy it, and call others to share their enjoyment. How we appreciate such self-image is how high the esteem we hold ourselves in, that may give us fame or notoriety when this image is seen with the eyes of others. (Sometimes we find a famous portrait, done by a popular artist, still worthless, because of the ignorance of viewers and idleness of the artist.)
Dignity begins at home: an ailing self-image shouldn't seek help from others, not to mention offer them help, before seeking help from within first. Advertising a disfigured self-image, however cleverly touched up, is dangerous; sooner or later, it boomerangs on its owner, doubling the contempt, if not the revenge, of those he/she misled: it is like taking step 2 before step 1, publishing a book before it's finished, serving a meal half-cooked, or uncooked.
Dignity is not conceit. Conceit afflicts idle individuals hungry for the fruits of a tree they didn't tend, the reward of a work they didn't finish: those who seek hasty pride and untimely mindless self-satisfaction, to escape work, guilt, and low self-esteem.
They rush to the effect before the cause, committing a logical fallacy by mixing cause and effect. Like many fallacies, it results from our lower primitive brain, when we can't/wouldn't use our higher one, thus fool ourselves and others. Thankfully, we are not all animal, all human: we enjoy mind and instinct, using one to control the other, to live in harmony with our self.
Dignity is a necessity we need as food, sleep and reproduction: a medium for survival, not an aim. It’s boring to be one and fun to be many, but not at the expense of one's dignity, because shame and pleasure can't go together. When there are no people to share life with, respectful or not of us, as we face such moments sometimes, life is still enjoyable and bigger than us and others: we can still explore nature, appreciate arts, read, work, travel, or just eat, as any of these is by nature an endorphin-boosting pleasure we can enjoy, in or out of the presence of other people.
Once our ego is protected, we should move forward and not be slaves to it, because life is worth going beyond one’s ego to seek more pleasures, in our constant pursuit of happiness. We can freely come back to it whenever we like, for a casual "checkup" or a self-knowledge test, or simply when it starts to hurt. Our ego won’t be lost or offended if it’s temporarily left; rather, it expands with life and the out-of-self experiences we bring back in. We need it to be safe, not pampered or spoiled.
To dwell on a mere survival need such as self-respect, turning it into a pleasure itself, makes us no different from our animal cousins, that live to satisfy their basic instincts only. Pride should only make us secure, not happy: expecting the happiness to come, derived from our sense of security, is healthy, but dwelling on it is sickening. Turning our dignity into an object of affection makes life difficult for ourselves and others:
Rushing to fight—over one's ego, food, tribe members, etc.—while there are better more civilized alternatives, makes us regress to an early stage of evolution. By satisfying such primitive urges we wear blinders, disabling us from seeing the other choices we have.
Improving one's self-image is useful but not fun, although anything useful eventually paves the way for fun. Success, praise and rewards are great mediums for happiness. When we earn them, we should catch our breath and look forward to what we love and enjoy. They make the background for a good picture of life, where no spots will distract the viewer from watching the foreground. Pleasure should always come first, in the foreground.
The Importance of Dignity
• Losing one's dignity can be disastrous. Dignity protects against many psychological and social diseases that many people suffer when they lose self-respect, starting to deeply suffer inside, wish suffering for others, maliciously plot against others, enjoy harming others, and eventually, when no others left, harming one's self, and end it when fully, incurably cancerous.
Although dignity is only a need, people can become very happy or miserable when they gain or lose it. It's the intrinsic connection between dignity and many social and solitary pleasures that makes dignity matter so; such a connection only ends by death. Even then, though clinically dead, our image will survive us, as still seen by others. However, the priority is for this image here and now, where uncertainties are less—Van Gogh's posthumous fame doesn't change the fact that he was miserable!
If dignity is hurt without treatment, psychological problems easily develop: inferiority, insecurity, physical/verbal aggressiveness, etc. Or, in a worst case scenario, dangerous social problems arise, even becoming a part of culture difficult to alter: crimes of passion, killing of honor, suicide of honor (e.g. the Samurai's hara-kiri), etc. When one life/ego is lost, others are affected too: orphaned children, broken families, and general chaos. It's the ego that everything else is founded upon: a healthy ego equals a healthy society.
Many well-known people throughout history had to fight for their dignity to the point of death. Even some, who did not have to fight, would go to extremes and aspire to die as martyrs or heroes, although they would never be around to enjoy such absurd unfelt posthumous reward. Worse, many others who neither had to nor loved to die for that social honor, took their own life out of unbearable shame and self-hatred. Sadly, many of us aren't so different form the above examples: sometimes we kill ourselves slowly, daily, by many forms of self-abuse we are good at. We rarely know how to love ourselves properly. No virtue is more misunderstood than the virtue of self-love, by having which many of the above scenarios could've been avoided.
• As dignity prepares for pleasure, people enjoy dignity-related pleasures. Socially, they love boasting, attention and fame, while others suffer envy, jealousy and shame. Personally, they can enjoy alone taking pride in the numerous things they have achieved, invented or discovered by themselves, as opposed to the self-pity and depression others may feel when they fail, or just lose a physical and mental ability (unless society offers an alternative lifestyle to adopt for those afflicted, and they are willing to adopt it).
• Protecting our reputation helps us achieve social goals: financial stability, keeping a position, socializing, networking, etc. However, improving our outside image requires improving the inside one first, by gradually building a high self-esteem, i.e. a good idea of oneself. Once built, we feel secure and confident enough to use the survival tools we have—experiences, intelligence, physical abilities, etc.—to change the world and deserve whatever reward it offers. Even without reward, we will have that portrait of ourselves we painstakingly painted, to enjoy alone.
But, when there is nothing to enjoy, inside or outside, alone or with others, life becomes hell.
Life is difficult with people who don't respect you. Talking or working with such people is a waste of life, yours and theirs. It's others' respect that makes them value what we say or do.
Ironically, most public figures people idolize and put on a pedestal—singers, actors, athletes, clergymen, etc.—are the least qualified "role-models," yet the most celebrated and blindly imitated, esp. by the young and naive, whatever the mistakes celebrities make or nonsense they say. It's our herd instinct that urges us to follow the footsteps of visible well-known figures and tribe members, without thinking, for having no time or desire to think.
When a man's dignity is hurt, his insecurity increases, because he becomes afraid of losing others, or for being no more sure about his own power to survive. Losing others by losing one's dignity means losing both the social pleasures and needs we derive from people, having to survive and enjoy life on our own.
If we are insulted, directly or not, falsely accused or not, the effect multiplies when the insult takes place before the eyes of many others. Insults can only be harmless, when they take place in front of people we do not care about, whose opinions can't hurt us, or who understand the falsehood of the insult. (Hence the Arabic proverb: "In a country where nobody knows you, you can run naked in the streets!")
• Other people cannot build our self-esteem for us, because it's a private property. Pride grows faster and flourishes in solitude by how each of us nurtures their self-love and develops self-knowledge: how they see themselves not how others see them, even though the latter may help at moments of diffidence and self-doubt.
• Children are the ones who need others' guidance and encouragement to love and believe in themselves, more than grown-ups do. Precaution is natural for any beginner in any filed of life, or in life itself, needing assurance from other people with previous experiences, so they know they are on the right track. However, it's immature to ask for such assurance "all the time" and "in every field," familiar or new to us.
• Building self-esteem requires avoiding the wrong tools causing a fragile ego structure, e.g. avoiding envy, leading to mindless competition, comparison, or conformity. "Comparison is the fool's way of measuring his self-worth," to know his natural or acquired qualities, gained by work or luck. Those who neither understand themselves nor others rush to conformity as an easy barometer of success and failure, and a façade to hide their self-ignorance behind. They emulate others and expect others to emulate them. They over-talk of social justice and equality, while deep inside lies an endless restless pathetic greed directing their actions, urging them to get the lion's share, forgetting to be fair or even reasonable.
Conforming to mindless social "standards" is not without a price, as they naturally differ from one person to the other, for life itself is not fair to everyone: a fact we must accept, until technology and science enable us to change. Contrary to what many idealists, socialists, religionists, and dreamers believe, we are not equal. Ignoring the "natural gap" between our minds, bodies and classes, in the name of equality, is dangerous. Treating someone below/above us as equal causes troubles. It's advisable to keep a distance, socially, between those who are physically and mentally distant, respecting nature's hierarchy, just like that of an organization, army, etc.
Those eaten by jealousy when seeing others more successful, richer, smarter, healthier, luckier, and happier than them, will wish them misery to alleviate the pangs of envy and inferiority they suffer. They believe life has been unkind to them so it should be unkind to others too. They may diligently work, plot, and conspire against other people, devoting time and energy to see them fail. With some math, it's easy to know why Schadenfreude is such a pleasure: it's the lazy man's shortcut to false success—to social conformity and society's standards. Looking up to successful or lucky others hurts the eye, that one should either go high too by hard work or sit still waiting for their fall/failure, as gloaters do, even though they haven't moved at all. It's an optical illusion afflicting the envy-infested mind that looks at the same object from wrong perspectives only to think it's different, as well as the onlooker, while neither is. A similar analogy is with faraway objects we cannot catch up with, that also hurt the eye (ego), wishing others to "go backward."
A self-respecting man doesn't fall prey to jealousy, nor wallow in self-pity. He doesn't care how he looks in comparison with others, nor need their "barometer" to understand himself. Rather, he spends quality time with himself, knowing, valuing, and loving himself, thus saving himself and others many social diseases, as well as gaffes.
• As in wars, protecting one's reputation/integrity among other people requires some tactics to learn, if one seriously wants to gain or re-gain it. Insults based on truth or falsehood are equally harmful. Defending oneself against false accusations while not knowing how to defend, or while emotionally charged, deepens the effect of insult rather than removes it.
Although happiness is what we live for, and peace is prerequisite to happiness, that we should always favor over fight; still if one is forced to fight, they must know how to do it. A hurt dignity can take very long to heal. It's better to heal dignity immediately by facing the insult and insulter, else the insult doesn't leave us, and we have to live with it, permanently.
In the middle of our social interactions, fast and casual as they be, we forget sometimes to notice the hurt caused to ourselves and others, although we feel it afterwards, eating at our souls when we are alone. The disturbance of the outside world makes it difficult to listen to our inner voice telling us we are suffering, let alone feel others' suffering.
• The best dignity protection technique is simply "being oneself" and ignoring others. Having good qualities and worthy achievements already speaks for you, requiring no defense or argument. It needn't even be seen by others, as long as it's seen by you. Only a "public image" requires more work to protect; but even then, the public value more someone with real achievements than a talkative one with no actions. It's mostly "social addicts" who constantly, restlessly, and uselessly seek others' approval, gratitude, or just company. They are easily hurt, angered, and dragged into vacuous quarrels over nothing.
• Forgiveness frees our ego from venom and other toxins destabilizing our ego structure. Our self-esteem can't grow up while we are busy "clamping down" on everyone trying to attack our self-image, that no one can harm but us. By such juvenile behavior, both the attacker and the attacked lose. We cannot spend our life searching for everyone who had caused us pain, at some time or another, doing us a physical, social or emotional damage, long after the pain was gone or while barely felt. Even when pain is fresh, there is usually little to gain from returning the hurt, however justified we were. We are superior civilized animals, who should rather occupy themselves with other priorities and pleasures, than the pointless "pleasure of revenge."
Unfortunately many of our laws are nothing but "legalized revenge" that neither compensate the victim nor discipline the guilty, while consuming great time and "life" energy, let alone their common liability to fatal irreversible mistakes.
We needn't turn ourselves into judges of others' motives, else our heart becomes a prison for everyone we disagree with, infested with hatred we must host and feed all life long. Returning the hurt while having other life priorities is a waste of life. Only when our image is harmed or seen by people whose opinion matters to us, and when such harm cannot be removed except by those who had done it—then, probably, but not necessarily, a punishment can be a last resort and solution to the problem.
Life is too short to dwell on hatred, grudge or revenge. Letting go of the hurt caused by others, and looking forward to the future are wise men's way to keep their peace and see beyond social disturbance.
When we feel low-spirited, because of others' hurt, or our own failure, or problems we cannot face, we'd better start from there than die there. The present is the time we can only control, a constant re-birth, with all the enthusiasm, enchantment and curiosity about life a little child has.