Main Entry: dig·ni·ty
Function: noun Inflected Form(s): plural dig·ni·ties
Etymology: Middle English dignete, from Anglo-French digneté, from Latin dignitat-, dignitas, from dignus
Date: 13th century
1: the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed
Lately, I’ve contemplated the concept of dignity. We argue and wrangle and orate, these days, about "death with dignity." For whatever reason, it’s of profound importance that we die with our boots on, with our heads held as high as our failing faculties can hold them. But apparently death is the only activity upon which our society will confer the blessing of dignity. Perhaps that is because such a large block of us—we, the ubiquitous baby-boomers—step closer to that eventuality with each passing moment.
Yes, we boomers demand Death With Dignity. But aren’t we also responsible for the death OF dignity? Worth? Honor? Esteem? Haven’t we contrived, since we were old enough to brandish protest signs and burn our bras, to tear down everything our parents—indeed, everything every American generation before us—esteemed, honored, or thought worthy?
Much as we would like to assign the blame for the state of our society to those generations that came after us—to gen-x or –y or Little Cat "z"—the fault is ours. It was our generation that scorned our parents’ etiquette and social behaviors, creating a nation of inconsiderate boors committed to "looking out for number one." Our generation that spawned the shock jocks and the foul-mouthed comedians and the gritty violence of modern cinema. Our generation which threw off the sexual constraints of our forebears, creating a societal obsession with all things pertaining to below-the-waist relations. We were too cool, too hip; too busy cultivating our infant world vision to be constrained by our parents’ "hang-ups." And now, as our parents die and we step into the roles of matriarchs and patriarchs, we wonder why our children, and their children, wouldn’t know dignity if it bit them in the ass.
Dignity is an old-fashioned concept. Our grandparents were dignified. And a little bit scary. They mostly didn’t stray much outside the communities into which they were born. They walked tall through adversity—and they walked through adversity that we can’t even imagine. They kept their personal business to themselves. And yet the community always rallied to stand behind a member or a family in need. Quietly. Without fanfare or hullabaloo, they went about the business of life. With dignity.
Our parents were born into those communities. And the monumental events of the Great Depression and The War changed and molded them. But still, they understood about dignity. They had it themselves, and they allowed for it in others.
Then, along came the Boomers. We didn’t understand the social codes that were handed down to our parents from their parents, and we were in too much of a hurry to take our places as the movers and shakers to learn. While our parents’ society was heavy on loathsome concepts like anti-Semitism and racial bigotry, it also embraced the injunction to care for those less fortunate; the mandate to protect the weak; the obligation to fulfill the needs of others before looking to one’s own needs. The softer and nobler concepts that differentiate humans from lower animals, and that keep a society from destroying itself from within. But we….we were so eager to throw over the outdated prejudices of our parents’ society that we didn’t take the time to sort the good from the bad. Wholesale change was the order of the day. And we threw out the baby with the bath water.
Why is it surprising to us that our children, and their children after them, took our selfishness, our carelessness and our impatience, and ran with it? It’s unfortunate that our progeny did not wholesale reject us as we did our parents, and turn in the opposite direction: toward mercy, compassion and…dignity. Unfortunate that the downward path—toward corruption, self-centeredness and anarchy—is so much easier to tumble down than it would be to clamber up a road to a nobler, more liberal plain.
Life, now, has to be lived at fever-pitch and light-speed. Everything is exaggerated. We all live as perpetual adolescents, where there is no happiness, only ecstasy; and sorrow can only be utter desolation. The measured, circumspect concept of dignity has been utterly forgotten.
I don’t know about you, but I’m too old for this…this world that we have created. What should we do now? What can we do now? Do we bug out of the 21st century? Fade out and live our remaining decades in the quiet shadows of the world we wish we had created? Or do we rouse ourselves, become the critical mass of which we are capable, and foment one more colossal change? Can we all—all xxxx-million of us—drop our feet off the side of the merry-go-round and slow it down, just enough for society to shake its head, get its bearings, and find the stuff that we threw off thirty years ago?
I think the future—of our nation, if not the planet—depends upon us doing exactly that.