A Year of Dignity #2 – Acceptance of Identity

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In this post my goal was not only to reflect and write about acceptance of identity, but to establish a structure for the first twenty or so weeks of this blog post series. The format I landed on is one in which we review the element of dignity (or later in the series, temptations to violate dignity) and then dig into it with introspective questions. Then, after taking stock of how I’ve thought and behaved in relation to that element of dignity, ending with an affirmation and commitment to embody it moving forward.

The places this exercise took me in my past were surprising. Some aspects of this element of dignity reminded me of positive lessons I’ve learned. Others of hard lessons. Others of shameful and hurtful behavior. But in the end, it gave me clarity in terms of why acceptance of identity (for myself and others) is so important. And it hardened my resolve to always do so.

I hope it has a similar impact on you.

The First Essential Element of Dignity – Acceptance of Identity

If you’ll recall from my first post in the series, in which I quoted the ten essential elements of dignity, the first is as follows:

Acceptance of Identity – Approach people as being neither inferior nor superior to you. Give others the freedom to express their authentic selves without fear of being negatively judged. Interact without prejudice or bias, accepting the ways in which race, religion, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, age, and disability may be at the core of other people’s identities. Assume that others have integrity.

Taking Stock of My Relationship to this Element of Dignity

How does one “take stock” of their relationships with a value? I’m not sure. But it seems like an essential part of the process of examining the role dignity (or the lack thereof) has played in my life. So I broke down the statement above and asked myself, “Have you done this in the past? Do you do it now? What experiences can you recall where: 1) you did or did not honor this aspect of dignity in yourself or others; or 2) others did or did not honor it in you?”

Seeing Others as Neither Inferior nor Superior

I’m fairly certain that if you asked me at any point in my life if I thought I was better than someone else, on a fundamental level, I would have said no. Because that’s a really shit thing to say. But if I’m being honest here–and that is the whole point–then there have been countless times in my life where my actions have betrayed the fact that I do think I’m better than some people. And that some people are better than me.

No specific examples spring to mind as I’m writing this but there are recurring situations I know I’ve conducted myself poorly in, both in thought and in deed. Such as making assumptions about people’s worth based on their accomplishments, appearance, competence, etc. And then treating them according to that assessment. Which could mean anything from ignoring them, to flattering them, or having a short temper with them.

Since learning about this element of dignity I’ve made a real effort over the last few years to see all people as having a baseline, incalculable value and worth–myself included.

That still leaves room for hierarchy in select situations–such as work–where people occupy roles based on specific skills, competencies, and qualifications. But that boils down to pairing people with work that they’re best suited to, not a determination of their relative worth to me or anyone else.

This practice has resulted in a sense of calm in me as I remind myself that my value does not come from my job title, bank account, or performance. And it’s made me more compassionate towards others as I think of them on a personal level more than I think of their role in my life, a company, or society.

Allowing Others to Express their Authentic Selves without Fear of Judgement

This point immediately brought back a shameful memory. When I was in grade school I had a classmate who constantly went around with a huge smile on his face. He was otherwise pretty shy. Certainly not “popular.” But for whatever reason he was always smiling, no matter the context. I didn’t get it. I assumed he was faking the smile and for some reason that bothered me. So I said to him, “Why are you always smiling? It’s weird.” And of course I said it with the naked derision and venom only a child can wield at another child.

Immediately the smile went away and the look that replaced it told me I had been wrong. He had not been faking. But now, because of my words, he was insecure about the unconscious expression of his feelings.

He didn’t smile any more that day. Or the next day.

I felt terrible. Even though I was young I think I instinctively knew that I had “projected” my feelings–which I was not smiling about–onto him. I had assumed that he had no good reason to smile. And so I took it off his face. I took a smile off another child’s face. Ugh. That’s not a good memory.

I later apologized to him. I explained why I had said what I said and that I didn’t think he should feel bad about smiling or being happy or anything. We actually became good friends for a few years, before amicably drifting apart the way some grade school friends do as they get older.

This is not the only or the worst infraction I’ve made when it comes to being nonjudgemental and allowing others to express their authentic selves. But it sticks out in my mind as perhaps the first time I understood on my own terms the damage I could do to others with my words. Especially when I attack who they are.

In the years to follow I would experience the pain of feeling rejected for who I was; how I wanted to dress, the music I liked, and all the other “big” indignities of becoming a teenager. But then things would get much more serious. I would dive headlong into my parents’ Christian faith. I’d dedicate my life to “changing the world for Jesus.” I’d join a ministry. And then slowly lose my faith until I finally had to admit, “I don’t believe this any more.” I’d feel the anguish of losing my community because who I was was no longer compatible with their beliefs. I’d feel the strain on my family relationships for the same reason. And all of it combined would make me feel terribly alone and worthless.

Over the last few years I’ve tried to adopt a new attitude towards authentic expression in others. I try to identify what it is about them that I’m noticing and then compliment them on it. Even if that compliment is as simple as, “I’m glad you’re doing [this thing]. It’s so you. And that’s awesome.”

It started out as a good reminder to me that things I don’t personally relate to or understand are just that. And by definition, other people’s identity are not about me. They don’t need to be a version of themselves that makes me comfortable or happy to possess dignity that’s worth honoring.

Now, this practice is something that’s more natural for me and I really enjoy seeing the affect it has on others as well as the kind of person I am when actively honoring their dignity (and mine) by accepting who they are.

Interacting with Others without Prejudice or Bias

During my years in ministry and my longer years as an evangelical Christian in general, interacting with others through a lens of prejudice and bias was more or less the norm.

There’s one group of people in particular I mistreated in thought, action, and affiliation–the LGBTQ community.

Growing up in the 90’s, saying something was “gay” as a blanket derogatory was perfectly acceptable. And I did. The Bible, my church, and community, spoke of LGBTQ folks as “abominations” and I went along with it. I had friends who came out who I did not support. At best, adopting the attitude, “It’s a shame God says that being gay is wrong. I wish that weren’t the case. But it is, and I have to stand with God.”

I’m certain that my actions both directly and indirectly hurt others by making them feel rejected for a core part of their identity.

By the time I de-converted from my faith and left ministry, I had long since given these ideas up and openly expressed my support for LGBTQ folks. And have ever since. But that doesn’t change the damage that was done and I feel it’s important to remind myself of this failing in order to recognize when a similar one in another area of my worldview might be cropping up. To remember how easy it was to be cruel when I thought that I was doing what was right.

On the off chance that someone from my past is reading this and they were negatively affected by my thoughts, actions, or lack of support for them as an LGBTQ person, I want you to know that I’m sorry. I know different now and I’m doing my best to honor and support the LGBTQ community. I hope you’ve long since found the love and acceptance you deserve.

Assuming Others Have Integrity

It’s been amazing to me over the last few years to see the amount of frustration, anger, miscommunication, and general strife that can be avoided by assuming the best in others. From my marriage, to my work relationships, to my social feeds–assuming the best in others (including integrity) has fundamentally changed the way I respond to the world.

Actions or statements from others that would have lead to a sharp reply and ensuing fight in the past, instead, more often than not, get a request for clarification that assumes their good intentions and a willingness to collaborate. 95% of the time, I’ve found, that’s actually the case! And the few instances when someone is not conducting themselves with integrity or they are in fact spoiling for a fight, the assumption of integrity/best intentions they receive actually changes their dynamic and further conflict is avoided.

Of course, this has only been so helpful to me because in the past my natural inclination was often not to assume integrity or best intentions. And the resulting headaches for all involved abounded.

Affirming my Commitment to the Acceptance of Identity

Every day, for the remainder of this year, I will affirm the following. And each week I will add a new affirmation based on another essential element of Dignity. You are welcome to do the same.

Today I will endeavor to be an agent of Dignity.

I will approach others as being neither inferior nor superior to myself.

I will give others the freedom to express their authentic selves without fear of being negatively judged.

I will interact without prejudice or bias, accepting the ways in which race, religion, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, age, and disability may be at the core of other people’s identities.

I will assume others have integrity.

Will I always be able to live up this aspiration? No, I don’t think I will. But my hope is that through daily affirmation of this ideal I will improve in each area of the acceptance of my own and others’ identities.

Final Thoughts

As I was reading, reflecting, and writing this week it occurred to me that I could of course “jump ahead”–listing all of the essential elements of dignity as affirmations right away. But as I mentioned in the first post of this series, there’s so much depth in each element. Each one deserves deep reflection and internalization. Which is why I’m intentionally spending a full week focusing on them one at a time.

And it’s a good thing I did!

This week flew by. I could probably spend a month on each essential element. But somehow I think that might be pushing the limits of what a blog audience can endure. That said, I could have written so much more under my “taking stock” section. I’m glad that I’ll be spending more time with this affirmation. And I plan to spend more time taking stock of my past experiences around this element of dignity too, as it feels like I’ve just scratched the surface.

Next Week in A Year of Dignity – Inclusion

For the next seven days I’ll be doing a deep dive on the element of Inclusion. I invite you to do the same and/or come back next week to follow along. Hopefully by next week I’ll also have a few free resources to go along with the series. Such as a printable list of the ten essential elements of dignity, the ten temptations to violate dignity, and the first two dignity affirmations. Personally, I plan to keep those printouts visible around my home/workspace so that I’m regularly reminded of them. If you’d like to do that too I’ll have them available as a free download in next week’s post.

In the meantime, do you have any questions or comments on the first essential element of dignity–Acceptance of Identity? Drop me a line in the comments section below!

Featured Image via Noah Buscher on Unsplash

Free Humanist Resources

Dignity by Donna Hicks, Ph.D.

Read the book that inspired this blog series and gain deeper insights into the nature and importance of dignity.

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