Monday, December 06, 2004


dig·ni·ty (d g n -t )n. pl. dig·ni·ties

1. The quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect.
2. Inherent nobility and worth: the dignity of honest labor.
a. Poise and self-respect.
b. Stateliness and formality in manner and appearance.
4. The respect and honor associated with an important position.

I’ve been thinking about dignity since yesterday morning. It was raining then, so I missed my usual walk around town. To replace the cardio-vascular exercise I had to use my backup, a recumbent bike that sits in the basement for such dreary days. It’s an awful piece of machinery, so bad, in fact, that I now call it the torture rack. About the only thing that makes these occasional ordeals tolerable is being able to listen to music while my body takes the beating. Yesterday I decided it would be Bob Dylan.

About 35 minutes into the workout Dylan’s raspy voice began belting out a snappy little number titled “Dignity.” As I pedaled one stanza really stuck with me. It follows:

“Searchin’ high, searchin low
Searchin’ everywhere I know
Askin’ the cops wherever I go
Have you seen dignity?”

It’s an interesting question. Where is dignity?

Well it was just one of those things that stuck with me all day. I talked about it with Nancy as we drove up to Kansas City. There were big doins’. Her uncle Arthur was celebrating his 101st birthday.

It was a real pleasure to honor a man like Arthur. He’s a quiet man, but he’s also quite a man. As the “world” gauges things he hasn’t set the world on fire. He never was a chief executive officer in a fortune 500 corporation. I don’t believe he ever held political office. Nor did he invent some great gadget that drove an adoring world to his door. He’s just lived his life out with a quiet dignity that people around him really admire.

And that has been the beauty of Arthur’s life. I believe that he, and countless other like him, epitomizes the dignity defined at the beginning of my post. Honest labor has been the hallmark of his life, and theirs. He’s also carried himself with stateliness and great poise. So have they. Now there weren’t brass bands or an adoring flock following them around. Theirs has been a dignity that sadly has been missed by the rich and powerful and famous. And it’s really too bad. If many of those who market their dignity to the masses had spent some time with men like Arthur they would have learned what real dignity is all about.

You see, dear reader, dignity isn’t something you can market or buy. Dignity is that state of being that a person carries naturally, without all the worldly trappings. People like Arthur have never needed the brass bands or the adoring fans. In their quiet way they have honored God and those around them and in so doing they received more than enough reward for their efforts. It’s rooted in humility and the “Book” tells us how important that really is:

33 “The fear of the LORD is the instruction of wisdom; and before honour is humility.”

I’ve spent a good part of this day thinking about that state of being. I thought back to a piece of poetry I wrote in 1995 about dignity:

Some say their roots are in the land
In the strength and dignity of furrowed country rows
Mine are in the blaze of neon
Giving light and breath to the tenements lining ghetto streets.
Some say their faith was honed on cathedral glass
And sharpened by regal priestly robes
Mine was cut on jagged ghetto glass
And purified by the clatter of subway steel.
Some say they have an eye for distant landscapes
Or the refined beauty of a mountain stream.
Mine is tuned to a ragged ghetto face
Or the cloistered ghetto masses forgotten by the rush of time.
Where's the dignity of life to be found?
In the land? In a stream?
For some it is for sure.....
Where is it then for me?
It's the romance of the Ghetto that will always fill my soul.
© 1995 Phil Dillon

I thought about what I wrote, and while I like what I said, I now see that there is even more to the whole idea of what gives life dignity.

I can see why a poet like Dylan would ask that question. In a world where far too many believe dignity can be bought or sold the idea seems almost foreign or illusory. You have to dig deeper than the surface to see it. It’s akin to those pearls of great price that Jesus spoke about in describing the kingdom of God.

I think back to yesterday. Seeing someone like Arthur, living in the final course of his journey, is a great reminder to me of the beauty and dignity of the life well-lived. I sense that there will be days ahead when the lesson will come to me once again. It will come at a those times when I’m tempted to compromise or to treat something as important as humility and integrity as though they were merchandise. And the lesson will be this. Dignity isn’t lost. It must be found deep within.


Tom Reindl said...

I think most in this world believe dignity is manufactured, and that it only has to do with self. Sad, huh?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reminding me that living an ordinary life is just as special as what the world perceives as a successful one. Thanks for the insight.


Feeble Knees said...

Hi Phil,
Worse than buying dignity, it seems in today's society we trade it wholesale for infamy or prestige. One has only to look at all the utterly ridiculous "reality" shows out there to see people willingly exploiting themselves for the spotlight.

Many blessings to Nancy's Uncle. There are too few like him left in the world!