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On Not Forgetting Who We Are

June 3, 2019


There is a grim story told by John Lukacs in his memoir, Confessions of an Original Sinner, that takes place in the battle-scarred landscape of postwar Hungary. Having recently abandoned his forced conscription by the fleeing Nazi overlords, the twenty-five-year-old Lukacs now had to cope with the vulgar and violent behavior of the newly occupying Russian Red Army. Lukacs recalled a young Jewish man who lived down the street from him. Just recently, he had returned from the concentration camps. His family having been murdered, he was utterly alone and sought a form of community with the Soviet overseers. He painted pro-Soviet slogans on his house and invited the soldiers in where he offered them what little food and money he had. Of the few possessions he shared with them, his most prized was a collection of model ships. And then, one day, Lukacs saw this:

We heard a lot of noise, shouting and slamming at high noon. I looked out the window at an ugly scene. The young man was out in the street, shouting desperately, banging at the door that had been slammed shut by the Russians. They had gone into his apartment, taken his entire collection, thrown some of his stuff into the street, together with the owner. That was bad enough, but even worse than their brutality were the broad grins on their mugs . . . They thoroughly enjoyed the pitiful powerlessness of their former admirer and friend. They were splitting their sides at the sight of his lamentations: his repeated petitioning produced bursts of enormous laughter.

Contrast this with a recent baseball game between the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros. Cubs batter Albert Almora Jr. drilled a line drive (traveling at a speed of ninety miles per hour) into the stands, injuring a four-year-old girl. Upon seeing what happened, Almora Jr. reflexively put his arms over his head, then crouched down and began to weep. He then went to the stands to see if she was okay, but again began crying while physically being held up by fellow players and a security guard. In a postgame interview, Almora Jr. heavily sighed, “Just praying. I’m speechless. I’m at loss of words. Being a father, two boys.”

How do we explain this? How can some people take such devilish delight in tormenting a vulnerable young man while others weep inconsolably at the prospect of having accidentally hurt a child?  

It has to do with dignity. 

Dignity is not some clunky construct or squishy metric. It is not a “stupid” concept as was once argued by fashionable psychologist Stephen Pinker. Dignity is the quality of being intrinsically valuable. It is not earned. It is not ephemeral. It is not cheap. It is not something that human beings can give or take away. 

Dignity is a condition of being. More specifically, it is the state of being a child of God. It is inviolable, ineradicable, and eternal. Dignity is not lost due to embarrassment, harassment, or death. St. Paul could just as easily have been talking about dignity when he spoke of God’s love for us. “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature” can separate us from our God-given dignity. In fact, our inalienable dignity is a brilliant facet of God’s love for us. 

For those who dismiss dignity as a quaint notion of a bygone era or a concept repellent for its religious connotations, don’t kid yourself. Your sense of a wrong perpetrated against you or a loved one is rooted in a sense of dignity violated. Every day people feel an injustice when they get cut off in traffic, passed over for a promotion, slighted by an erstwhile friend, or betrayed by a love. Your sense that you deserve better is rooted in the sense of your intrinsic value, your dignity. If there is no dignity, there is no injustice. 

The greatest of literature is defined by its grappling with man’s dignity. In King Lear, Cordelia reminds her father of his dignity after rescuing him (for a time) from the murderous pursuits of his other daughters and the ravages of an unforgiving storm. In Prometheus Bound, Prometheus’ dignity is lamented as he is chained to a mountain and daily eviscerated by an eagle for defying the gods and giving fire to man. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet finds her dignity assailed by the insufferably arrogant Lady Catherine de Bourgh as she demands Elizabeth’s promise never to enter an engagement with her nephew. 

The most consequential acts in history are defined by dignity. The American Revolution, Emancipation Proclamation, and the Civil Rights movement all emerged from the sense of dignity violated. Dignity is why the Holocaust is a horror and the Gulags are a nightmare. It is why we lament every untimely death and celebrate every extraordinary rescue.

Dignity suffuses the stories of Christ: the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Widow’s Mite, and the Lost Sheep. Dignity informs Christ’s actions: healing the leprous, exorcising the possessed, forgiving the adulteress, and dying for us all. All that Christ said or did is a reclamation; he reminded us of who we are. 

Michelangelo’s Pieta just isn’t the Pieta until you know what lies lost in that weeping Mother’s arms. Dignity is the sad in sad stories and the joy in every return home. Without dignity, there is no tragedy—only nihilism. If no one matters, nothing matters. 

Once, G.K. Chesterton aptly described our predicament in Orthodoxy,

We have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is. . . . We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are.

If anything is to matter, we must matter. We have dignity—ineradicable, inviolable, eternal dignity. 

To be sure, we are children of God. 

Or have we forgotten that?