My wife went through an experience lately with a salesperson who obviously made a mistake in overcharging her for a pair of boots. The problem was the salesperson did not want to admit she made a mistake. My wife calculated the total with the tax on her phone, showed it to the salesperson and the salesperson still refused to admit that was the correct total. My wife then took the salesperson’s calculator and calculated it on her store calculator, showed it to her and still she was adamant about the previous price. My wife finally pointed out the obvious error the salesperson was making which was she simply wasn’t reading the “0” between two of the numbers. The salesperson then quietly re-entered the new amount into her computer and repeated the same total price that my wife gave to her. But still, no apology.
Lately, as I’ve been giving talks about beauty and love and the dignity that the two afford us, I got to think that we have a hard time apologizing because we’re afraid of losing dignity. Dignity is the most fundamental and foundational, qualifying trait of our humanity. Dignity conveys that we have inherent worth, intrinsic value and natural respect that needs no defense and should be assumed by all. But in our broken world and fragile self-esteems, dignity, ironically, seems to be the one thing that many people strive to get or fight for in the real world. Without dignity, we lose a sense of ourselves and feel weak in making choices. For some who aren’t confident about their dignity, they resign to feeling worthless while for others they overly assert themselves to the point of irrationality or insensitivity, like failing to apologize even when the fault is clear. In my Chinese culture, we have a common phrase for this kind of feeling, “losing face.” Perhaps much that drives our actions and arouses our feelings has to do with this quality that is fundamental to our humanity which we’re striving to preserve. We’re fighting for our dignity in our educational achievements, career advancements, purchases of nice things, sometimes with the friends we make and even the way we try to look. Often times (though not always), it’s not the toys, money, accomplishments, awards or good looks we’re really after — it’s the dignity we feel these things can give us. The opposite of dignity is shame, which is the skeleton and sensitivity we all wrestle with. What we don’t want is shame, from others, ourselves or God.
But at the base of our humanity is dignity. At least that’s what God intended when he forged us according to his own image. As image-bearers of God, dignity IS an inherent trait in our humanity, though sin, brokenness and our fallen state competes with our dignity. Because of the Fall, shame is very much a familiar friend, as it was for Adam and Eve. So, it’s no wonder dignity is such a sensitive spot in our souls; it’s because we’re fighting against shame that threatens us all the time whenever we forget to comb our hair, failed to pass that test, cracked a joke that wasn’t funny, or made a mistake that we have difficulty admitting.
In Hollywood, shame is the ultimate enemy. But genuine dignity is also the elusive prize. Have we truly achieved human dignity by the things we do or get? Perhaps by understanding that dignity is what we are really searching for it frees us to evaluate the things we pursue and ask if they really translate into dignity. If we have trouble as imperfect people admitting to a mistake we’ve made or being humble enough to apologize for it, then we have not found that solid dignity that grounds who we are.