Dignity, Not Decency: Striving Past Acceptable Standards in Society

At first, this blog post was going to begin, “I’ve been thinking a lot about decency in the last week.”

Scratch decency.

After a quick consult with my dictionary, I realized the word I am searching for isn’t decency. The word I am searching for is dignity.

Now this blog post is going to begin, “I’ve been thinking a lot about dignity in the last week.”

Maybe you’d be interested in understanding why the difference matters to me, though. I’m going to share the difference and why it matters whether you want me to or not.

See, it’s like this—

the dictionary tells us that decency is “behavior that conforms to accepted standards of morality or respectability.” However, the dictionary tells us that dignity is “the state or quality of being worthy of honor and respect, a composed or serious manner or style, self-respect.”

The difference matters to me because I do not simply want to “conform to accepted standards of morality or respectability.” I don’t want to conform to anything at all. I want to make exact, serious decisions about who I am and who I plan to be.

To the blog post, then, now that we’ve cleared all that up.

I’ve been thinking a lot about dignity in the last week. Why am I thinking about dignity? I don’t know precisely, maybe because I have a daughter now. She is only five weeks old and I can’t help but wonder exactly what I plan to say about the myriad of positions, ideals, morals, values and arguments in life.

In my junior year of college, I read a book for an assignment that I fell in love with—The Remains of the Day. In fact, I’ve come to love much of Kazuo Ishiguro’s writing (with a little disappointment in the recent release of The Buried Giant, but that’s another story for another blog post). The novel, The Remains of the Day, which is focused on a primary character by the name of Stevens who represents the classic English butler, spends a lot of time focusing on the topic of dignity.

In fact, Stevens himself states that he believes obtaining dignity is the same as a “coming of age” for a butler (which is discussed in the passage on page 70 in this edition). To him, he “came of age” and obtained the dignity required to be considered a “great butler” the night he handled his professional duties with grace and precision in the face of his own father’s death. For Stevens, this simple act in the throes of a monstrous loss was enough for him to be “worthy of honor and respect.” That’s really the key to being dignified rather than being decent, too.

It’s about your standards.

This is not an invitation to be lazy! I do not recommend saying “Well…my standards involve never showering, never saying please, drinking 24/7, plus refusing to smile at other people,” and then shaping yourself into the planet’s biggest, smelliest, most drunk asshole. This is rather an invitation to be greater than the status quo.

The sad truth is that “the accepted standards of morality and respectability” in society can really suck sometimes. We do not necessarily want to strive to be the average member of society. We need to strive to be dignified by our own standards, and our standards need to be high. That is not to say that society doesn’t have some standards that are worthy of striving for on a daily basis. It just means that no one has it 100% figured out, and since no one can figure it out that full 100%, we have to create internal personal standards that guide us. We have to decide what we allow to influence our internal personal standards.

It won’t be the same for everyone, and that’s fine. I have a number of influences in my own life that shape the way I would define dignity for myself. Some people have religious backgrounds or current religious affiliations. Some people have military influence. Others have been placed in private school environments, attended ivy league universities or have traveled, exploring a ton of different cultures. Some people have no access to technology, some people are guarded about technology, and some people strive to fully integrate technology into their world. Some people like peace and love. Some people prefer war and security.

It is important that we consider striving for our own personal dignity. I must ask myself the tough questions as I consider how I will raise my daughter. I must begin (if I have not already started to, which I haven’t in some areas) to strive for dignity. My daughter will only hold onto my words for a flash of time, and when she begins to close her ears to me, I must be dignified in my actions to continue speaking to her.

My daughter may have sparked my thoughtful musing on dignity, but I do not mean to imply she should be the only reason I strive for dignity. We should strive for dignity to create a better version of ourselves. We should strive for dignity so we have personal standards we can follow when the waters get murky and we begin to doubt our own actions. In fact, we should strive for dignity so that we have something to strive for when everything else seems to be lost.

Do not conform. Do not accept what society accepts and call it your own. Keep the difference between decency and dignity clear in your mind. Remember that dignity relies on you—dignity gives you power to be someone incredible. Life will require you to take positions. Existing will require you to hold certain ideals dear. Your morals and your values are formed from a variety of backgrounds and sources, but ultimately, your morals and your values have to be your own—you must believe in them to the roots of yourself. Life will require you to argue—argue with dignity and direction.

Make exact, serious decisions about who you are and who you plan to be.

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