There is an old theater adage that says, “Expression cannot exceed impression.” An actor needs to internalize the image of an experience, see it and be present to it in his mind and imagination before he can project it through feeling.
The same could be said for seeing the image of God in another and identifying dignity. You have to see dignity and internalize it in order to express it. The deeper we go into our own humanity, the closer we are to God. In other words, we need to see the image of God through an individual’s humanity. That means we look for God in others in our experience to inform ourselves in seeing God within ourselves. It’s not a revolutionary idea, but it is one we need to be reminded exists.
This is why the person of Jesus is important. We have excellent examples of people who understood this fully in the history of social justice: Saint Ignatius who begged for bread to feed the hungry, St. Francis who lived with lepers and became one himself, Mother Theresa, who humbly worked menial jobs in her order alongside novices in picking the dead off the streets, Gandhi who scrubbed toilets as a leader in his commune, Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr. who were jailed for exercising civil disobedience.
The great ones see the humble and, at times, seemingly degrading experiences of others and willingly enter into that experience themselves in solidarity to help them go deeper in their own recognition of dignity. As a result they are changed and lead by example of their dignity. They have risen above adversity and conquer in greater ways.
This week I was at Monday Night Meals at St. Malachi’s Church where free meals are distributed to those in need. An ornery character walked in late. He moved with a herky-jerky motion, which leads me to believe he has a neurological disorder. He had a thick head of shiny, silken black hair that was mussed up like a rocker. His eyes were deep and sunken, and he was toothless with a jutting jaw that bore a three-day beard and a slim goatee.
It was getting to the point where food lines were starting to shut down. We told him to get a meal, and he waved us off as if he wasn’t going to eat. He had something he had to do and attended to it. On his way back to us we told him the line was closing. He told us, “I don’t stand in no line.” I told him I would get him a meal and he showed me where he would be sitting. When I delivered the meal, he thanked me with sincerity.
A couple folks at a table nearby stopped me and took exception to the extra service I provided. “I don’t ask for anyone to get me a meal,” said the old man sitting at the end of the table.
“Well, everyone has their reasons,” I said. I didn’t want to get into it, but in my mind I wanted to say that some people mentally aren’t able to accept standing in line. This man wasn’t able to do it tonight and that was okay. The people sitting there were older. I told them I would get their meals for them next time. The old man who took the biggest exception directed my attention to his pant leg and revealed a prosthetic leg with a no nonsense black hitch that connected the flesh colored fiberglass calf to a flesh colored fiberglass foot wearing a sneaker.
“Five years ago,” he said, “Smoking. See?” he asked. “I got this and I don’t ask for that special attention. I will never ask you to get my food for me. Never!” He was proud of himself.
The main point that struck me was each man in his own way was seeking the opportunity inadvertently to demonstrate his own dignity. Although they were both accepting a free meal, they were vulnerable in doing so. They did what they could to save face and demonstrate to me that they have pride.
We all do this and are all self-conscious about saving face. We all have pride and when we have to do something that seems as though it undermines who we are, we make excuses to others to justify having to do the act.
Some of us are in job situations where we have to bow to someone who demeans us at work, or we are keeping our mouths closed about an injustice out of necessity to save ourselves and pick our battles when we should be speaking up, or we have to ask someone to help us because we cannot do a task ourselves, or someone is cleaning us and wiping our butts because we are vulnerable and sick.
Claiming dignity comes when we realize that no matter how rich you are or how poor you are there is going to be a time when you need another. When you realize that is all right, and you are okay with it — when you have arrived at a place where you have claimed a sense of wholeness and worth regardless of what needs to be done, you have fully claimed your dignity.
The idea of rugged individualism in America undermines our ability to accept the service of others, but we need to recognize that it is okay to ask for help. Our egos always need to be in check. Humbling ourselves in ways that society deems as compromising our integrity is normal and will happen to each of us in our own way.
“Expression cannot exceed impression.” As I think deeper about the image of God in those two men, I see myself. I am witness to their vulnerability as I reflect on my past in accepting help from others. I am witness to their pride when I had to suck it up and work where I didn’t want to work. I am witness to their truth when I see that Christ is deeply reflected in who they are and who I am in relation to them. Dignity is visible through our ability to stand tall and stare in the face of any adversity we hate to confront but confront it nonetheless.