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Why Dignity? It's All About the Cookie


By Mike Dilbeck (Texas Christian)

To even begin answering this question, we must first ask, “What is dignity, anyway?"

Dignity is one of those words that is thrown around quite a bit but very few actually know what it means. To be honest, I didn’t know before I started to explore it more.

So, let me try and clear this up a bit...

Very simply stated, dignity is our inherent birthright to always feel valued and worthy. We are born with the right to always have the experience that we matter, are appreciated, and have something to contribute to others and to the world. A violation of dignity is when we don't feel this about ourselves based on what someone else has done or said. Any time we feel less than, not valued, not appreciated, not enough, or that we don't matter, this is a violation of our own dignity.

Starting to make sense more? Let's dig a little deeper with the help of Dr. Donna Hicks of Harvard University and her book, “Dignity”…

"Dignity is an internal state of peace that comes with the recognition and acceptance of the value and vulnerability of all living things…”

Whereas certain behaviors like bullying, hazing, and sexual abuse intentionally violate the dignity of others, Dr. Hicks goes on to say, "We do not deliberately hurt each other just for the fun of it. We are often unaware of the ways we routinely and subtly violate each other's dignity. At the same time, we are not fully aware of the power we have to make people feel good by recognizing their worth. This lack of awareness comes from not being educated about dignity. Once we become aware, we can learn how to manage our emotional reactions, which often end up hurting others, and how to communicate that we value others.”

It is time to empower ourselves to demand a level of dignity in our own behavior that will not only be a reflection of who we are and what we are committed to but will value others and their unique contribution to society.

To be clear, this is not an allegation that you are not honoring dignity. You may or may not be. Most likely, there are times you do and there are times you don’t. This is an opportunity for us all to take stock in our own actions and our own words to determine if we are leaving people with the experience that they are valued and worthy. It is time that we all take responsibility — not blame or fault — for the role we play in bringing dignity to our relationships, whether it be with family members, chapter brothers, friends, co-workers, peers, or total strangers.

So, why dignity? Why explore this phenomenon as a means to higher confidence and self-esteem, as well as stronger and more meaningful relationships? Why study this subject as a means to eradicate some of our biggest problems like violence, abuse, and harassment?

According to Dr. Hicks, “What seems to be of the utmost importance to humans is how we feel about who we are. We long to look good in the eyes of others, to feel good about ourselves, to be worthy of others’ care and attention. We share a longing for dignity — the feeling of inherent value and worth. When we feel worthy, our value is recognized, we are content. When a mutual sense of worth is recognized and honored in our relationships, we are connected. A mutual sense of worth also provides the safety necessary for both parties to extend themselves, making continued growth and development possible.”

As I continue to work with national fraternity and sorority organizations, I ask this, “Isn’t this what we are in the business of? Weren’t we founded to create meaningful relationships and provide a safe environment for growth and development?” I assume you answered “yes” to both of these questions. Now that we are aligned on what we are here for, here is the next question, “Are we always honoring the dignity of all members so that this is accomplished?”

I truly believe that many problems can be prevented, at least minimized, when we allow ourselves to be aware of the dignity we may violate by our own actions or words. I am under no illusion that all problems will be eradicated through a newfound awareness of dignity; however, through this awareness, we may be able to transform actions of harm, and physical or psychological abuse to be ones of empowerment, value, and worth.

We must empower our members — of our organizations and of society — to ask and answer three very important questions:

  1. If I were to say I conducted myself with dignity, what would my behavior look like?
  2. If I wanted to treat someone with dignity, what would I do?
  3. What does it look like when I violate someone’s dignity or compromise my own?

On a recent Monday, I found myself in line at Jason's Deli to get lunch. In full disclosure, I was not in a pleasant mood – it was one of those typical Mondays and I was irritable, annoyed, and cranky. I was hoping some time out of the office for lunch would help me change my attitude.

The man directly in front of me in line approached the counter, behind which stood a genteel-appearing, middle-aged Muslim woman preparing to take his order. The man then delivered his order in a condescending and disrespectful tone – rude, actually. Not only rude, but offensive.

While I was at first appalled by his behavior, I immediately noticed that I was on the same track – I was about to treat her the same way he was, given my mood at the time. Because of my newfound awareness around dignity, I took stock of what was about to happen and I, in that moment of time, transformed how I was going to treat this woman. I walked up, greeted her with a smile and a few kind words, placed my order, and thanked her for her service to me. In short, I honored her dignity. As soon as I placed my sandwich order and paid, I noticed a wrapped, gluten-free Snickerdoodle cookie – my favorite combination! My eyes lit up and I took the cookie, apologized that I had already paid, and proceeded to take my wallet out again. This is when she gently looked at me, smiled, and said, "Don't worry about it – the cookie is on me today – you have been my best customer so far!"

In one way, it is sad that I became her "best customer" simply by treating her the way she deserves to be treated – with dignity. Yet, it is a very simple, yet powerful, demonstration of what honoring another’s dignity makes available: a meaningful connection. I made her day in that moment – and she made mine. I went back to the office with a new outlook and appreciation for valuing another’s dignity.

While it's not about the cookie, it really is about the cookie. It's about honoring people's dignity...and our own.

It is time that we honor dignity in all interactions.

Sigma Nu Fraternity is proud to be a founding sponsor of DignityU, a project led by Mike Dilbeck (Texas Christian), with support from expert consultant Dr. Donna Hicks, to provide needed education on this important topic of dignity. More information on DignityU can be found at https://www.dignityu.com/.

If you have ever experienced a violation of your dignity and would be willing to contribute to this important project by sharing your story, check out https://www.dignityu.com/p/share-my-story. There will be no need to share your name and/or chapter affiliation.

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