I recently had the ebook “What Matters Now” suggested to me, (I would not strongly recommend it; for those insecure in their knowledge of what matters it is likely dangerous; for those secure it is likely a waste of time). In reading it, I was rather troubled by one comment by Jacqueline Novogratz therein: “Dignity comes from creating your own destiny and from the respect you get from your family, your peers and society.” Is this dignity?
Creating your own destiny is a part of dignity, if considered rightly. One cannot have dignity while a slave to another. But what does it mean to be a slave? A free man makes his own choices; a slave accepts the choices of others. This does not, however, mean that the free man chooses the choices. Every one of us is given a certain set of options among which we choose; those, and no others. We do, it is true, influence by our present choices the options we shall face in the future, but we can only influence them, never determine them. Therefore, to be free a man need have no control over outcomes; it is indeed possible that all possible choices would produce the same result. Is a man faced with a choice between death and doing wrong to avoid it? He remains free, so long as he does not allow another to choose for him. The choice is his, even if the options are not those he would choose if he could. Thus also a man may be a slave despite possessing the greatest power: if a man allows the actions of others to determine his own actions he is a slave. Our lives, therefore, are precisely what we make of them: if a man resists what he cannot control, he condemns himself to frustration; if he grants to others power over what is in his control, he condemns himself to slavery; if he uses rightly what is hiss and accepts what is not, he is free. Therefore, dignity as self-determination is the power to create not one’s external situation but one’s own character.
And what of the second part of the definition, “the respect you get from your family, your peers and society?” This we must in no way allow. For the respect of others remains always contingent. Do the masses love you? Ask again tomorrow, or if not then the day after. Therefore, dignity demands nearly the opposite of being respected: an independence from the need for the respect of others. Do what is right, and judge others on what they think of what you have done; do not judge what is right by what others will think. He is richest who has the least fear of want, and because the possession of all external things is contingent and so one with wants and the means to satiate them must still fear their loss, he is richest who has the fewest wants. In the same way he is most dignified who least relies on the approval of others.
Novogratz continues to say that “It’s easy to take dignity away from someone but difficult to give it to them.” Half is nearly correct; the other half could not be further from the truth. Dignity is not merely difficult but impossible to give, for he who relies on the gifts of others does not possess dignity. But at the same time dignity is impossible to take away. The dignified man is precisely the self-reliant man, the man who contents himself with doing right and accepts what he cannot control. Nothing any other can do can disturb such a man. He is free in wealth, for he does not fear its loss; he is free in poverty, for he does not need anything but his own will. He is free when respected, for he does not allow the maintenance of that respect to control him; he is free when disrespected, for if he has done wrong he knows the disrespect to be deserved and if he has done right he knows that in their malignments his accusers condemn only themselves (should we seek the praise of bad men? Certainly not. And is the man who praises evil good or bad? Bad. Therefore, doing evil can only earn the praise of bad men, whose praise is worthless). Dignity is important; but let us think not of how we can bestow it on others but of how we can teach ourselves and others to secure it for themselves.