Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Pride and Dignity

Pride. Dignity. When does the fine line get crossed? My mac's dashboard dictionary defines Pride as, "the consciousness of one's own dignity." It defines Dignity as, "the quality of being worthy of honor or respect."

Do we not, in some way, need to be aware of our own dignity in order to, at the very least, preserve it? To nurture it? If we are to live lives that are worthy of honor and respect, it stands to follow that pride, the consciousness of those qualities in ourselves, must be part of our psyches.

I've known men who were both proud and dignified. Heck, I lived with one for nine years. As a paraplegic confined to use of a wheelchair, John's dignity was very important to him. He never wanted to be perceived as weak, and I don't think he ever was - certainly not by me. He took great pride in the fact that no one ever saw him as being weak. He very rarely asked for help with anything, and more rarely accepted help. It's my theory that the loss of that dignity is what finally killed him - not cancer. Nine days before he died, he tried to get out of bed (transferring himself to his chair as usual), and failed because his muscles just weren't there for him. He ended up doing a controlled fall to the floor. He struggled fruitlessly by himself for half an hour to either get back in the bed or into his chair. When I couldn't bear to see him struggle any more, I suggested, "Let me help. Let me pick you up." Knowing that he couldn't spend whatever was left of his life on the floor, he acquiesced. I scooped him up and set him in his chair. As glad as I was that I could be there for him, and help, it broke my heart because I knew what it meant to him for me to do that. I think it was in that moment that something inside of him finally broke, the fortress of a dignity that had been built over the course of 35 years as a paraplegic had been breached. Something inside him said, "Fuck it. The day my girlfriend has to put me in my chair is the day it's done." He went to bed that night and never got up again, dying 9 days later. He died with dignity - regardless of the mess, regardless of the agony of the last stage of his illness, and the frustration at not being able to communicate and articulate as he had always so adroitly done. I was honored to be there, and respected the man who asked for nothing.

One time, a few years back, John and I were with my brothers, Mike and Tom, in Las Vegas. We'd been wandering around the casinos and were ready to head back out onto the street. The only way out we could find involved going down an escalator - a scary concept for a guy in a wheelchair. Mike and Tom suggested that I could take the chair down and they could carry John down. "No! Oh hell no!" was John's fervent reply. "Here's what's going to happen. Mike, Tom, you guys get on in front of me, brace yourselves to keep me from rolling down the steps, and I'll wheel on backwards. Barb, you get on after me and just keep a hand on my chair for stability." And that's just how we did it. The looks we got from people watching a dude in a wheelchair going down an escalator (backwards, no less!) were priceless. Dignity was intact all around... we got to help, and John got to be his own man.

Dignity asks for nothing. Pride flat out refuses anything. I've watched people struggle, (hell, I've done it often myself), and go through a myriad of agonies, frustrations and annoyance in a attempt to avoid asking for, or accepting help from others. It's a noble pursuit, that dignity, but the necessary cement of pride that it requires is often more of a stumbling block than a step. I think one of the reasons John and I got on so well was that I have the same mindset when it comes to "doing it myself." Alas, I had a year that wouldn't allow for that. I had to accept help from others, physically, emotionally, spiritually and financially. Looking across that chasm, knowing that I couldn't cross it on my own, broke me of pride. Moreover, it made me acknowledge that in allowing others to help, I was lending to their dignity (in that they were helping out of their own sense of honor and respect). Who was I to deny their journey? Who was/am I to deny my own?
We all need to learn to accept each other's help. There's nothing wrong with doing that, provided it's not an expected thing, provided it doesn't engender a sense of entitlement in either direction. We isolate ourselves and stand on pride in pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps (again, that's mostly a good thing - I greatly admire anyone who attempts to stand on their own), but there comes a time when humility and pride have to do battle in order to preserve our dignity. Humility is a tough biscuit to chew and swallow - to make our selves less important in the overall picture. How many times have each of us struggled with something, only to hear someone say, "Hey, let me help...", only to say, "Ah, no... that's ok, I've got it." We don't always "got it." Like it or not, we need each other. The person who offers help needs to give that help just as much as the person struggling needs to receive it - where's the dignity in hanging in the wings watching someone struggle needlessly? Where's the dignity in falling down simply because you wouldn't allow someone to help?


Let someone help you today - allow for a break in the facade of pride. Watch how it makes that person shine, watch how it makes you grow. Then pay it forward. That's dignity... be proud of it.

“Remember this; that there is a proper dignity and proportion to be observed in the performance of every act of life."
~Marcus Aurelius

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