Copyright: khatsko / 123RF Stock Photo

In Defense of Human Dignity

Sep 21, 2016

I saw her petite profile in the mirror while my hair stylist worked magic on my hair. She wore a gray crown of thinning glory, skin weathered by time, and a perfect taupe handbag clutched neatly in her lap. While her stylist enhanced her gray in a chair right behind me, mine tried to cover mine up. Something that requires more and more time. But I digress.

I guessed her to be somewhere near eighty years old. Still going to the salon to get her hair done, just as I watched my grandmother do week after week for her entire life.

For you young’uns, back then a woman didn’t wash her hair every day. Instead she scheduled a salon appointment once a week during which her hairdresser (and friend) washed, curled and styled it to a beatific glory. No self-respecting woman missed her standing hair appointment.

This is what I thought when I glanced in the mirror at the woman sitting behind me. I saw a woman much like my grandmother displaying a grace and beauty that conveyed a wealth of life.

About the time my semi-grey crown had been covered with enough foil to communicate with alien life forms, something changed. I could sense it. Being that my back was turned, I couldn’t see what was happening. But her stylist was helping the older woman stand and walk.

That’s when I noticed the smell. And after my early years of being a nurse and the following years raising children, I knew: God bless her. She’d had an accident. A bad one. Right there, fully clothed and in the middle of a hair salon.

Chances are you’re experiencing some type of visceral response right about now. It makes sense. It’s the automatic human reaction to sense-overload. Repulsed at the thought, you may have pulled back. Perhaps you frowned or scrunched your nose. Or maybe your hand went to your heart in a gesture of sympathy.

That’s pretty close to what I did at first, with one exception: I felt a painful stab of empathy.

You see, there was a time not all that long ago when I was so sick I had a similar experience. Not the same, but close enough. I’ll spare you the details, but trust me when I say it was, hands down, one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. It’s a horrible and helpless thing to discover that your body no longer does what it’s supposed to. And when it misbehaves publicly? Well a girl would rather die.

As I pieced together what was happening, I felt her shame. This sweet woman left her house an hour before to get her hair done, something that should have left her feeling beautiful, attractive, valuable. Instead, her sense of significance likely disappeared somewhere between her salon chair and the bathroom door.

Within moments, my stylist led me to the sink, removed a good 75 square feet of foil, and proceeded to wash my hair. As she did, I closed my eyes and prayed:

God, show me what to do. Say something? Say nothing? I want to give her dignity. Show me what I can do to make her feel beautiful and worthy again. 

It pains me that an opportunity never presented itself. By the time my hair was shampooed, I walked back to my chair with a towel-draped head to discover the older woman was gone. Left for home. With hair still wet and heart undone.

That’s my reason for writing this post. Not to expose her humiliation, God help me. You’ll never know her name or what she looks like or the exact day this scene took place.

No, my purpose isn’t to diminish her worth. But restore it.

Every day we run into people in dignity-stealing situations. The homeless man on the corner. The boy who wet his pants in the park. The alzheimer’s patient who can’t remember her first name. The teen girl eight months pregnant. The elderly gentleman who asks you to repeat what you said a half-dozen times because he can’t hear. The chemo-sick woman who throws up in the parking space next to yours.

In every case, shame steals significance.

I say, let’s steal it back. Let’s be the kind of people who see those moments of unparalleled humiliation as merely a painful-but-universal experience of broken humanity. And let’s become warriors and fighters who ruthlessly defend the dignity of those who’ve think they’ve lost it.

Our first response may be to cringe, scrunch up the nose or even pull away. But let’s make sure a well-planned second response trumps the first one. It’s uncomfortable. And it’s awkward. And there will be a measure of pain and embarrassment when we step into theirs.

But that’s love. Doing the hard things because they’re also the right things. Pursuing another’s comfort at the expense of our own. And becoming dignity-givers and value-restorers because one day we’ll be the ones needing both.

And to the beautiful older woman clutching the lovely taupe handbag, there’s so much I want to tell you.

First, this.

I’m so very sorry. I know you’re probably replaying the day, trying to close your eyes against the reality of what happened. I understand more than you know. And I’m sorry.

But you need to know: When I looked at you I didn’t see a mess to clean up. I still don’t. I see a beautiful and courageous woman. One who walked into that salon at eighty years old determined to live, and one who walked out with even more grace and courage than before.

Please, please. Don’t stop showing up. We need you. And you couldn’t be more lovely to me.

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[reminder]What is one way you can restore a measure of dignity to someone you encounter today? Name it. Then do it. [/reminder]

[Image Copyright: khatsko / 123RF Stock Photo]

40 Comments

  1. Cindy Thomas

    Show empathy & compassion – and really mean it, We may all, Lord willing, walk in this women’s shoes someday. Personally, I love older adults and think they are highly under rated and overlooked. We as a society need to learn to love, honor and respect our senior citizens. They have much to offer if we just take the time to reach out, lean in and listen.

    Reply
  2. Betty Arthurs

    Such a beautiful, touching post. Thanks for sharing and reminding me to be understanding, to feel compassion, to love.

    Reply
  3. Linda Lochridge Hoenigsberg

    One way I try to restore dignity to my clients when they expose their deepest darkest shame is I “tell on myself (if I know it would be helpful to them).” If it’s something that I did in the idiocy of my youth or something that was similar, I’ll mention it. In order words, I try to “normalize,” something that may not be normal behavior to everybody, but may make perfect sense to those who grew up in chaos, experienced childhood trauma, or abandonment. On another note, years ago I had an “accident” during the hour drive back from a medical test. My husband pulled over the truck, got me into a bathroom by the river, cleaned me off (he’s prepared like a Boy Scout) and took off his jeans, helped me put them on and drove us home in his underwear. As the Bible says, “Love deeply because love covers a multitude of sins.” I Peter 4:8. You are right Michele. We need to cover each other with the cloak of dignity and put ourselves in the spots of others.

    Reply
    • Michele Cushatt

      The thought of your husband driving you home in his underwear is incredibly beautiful. That’s the metaphor for what we ALL should do for one another. <3

      Reply
  4. Sue

    I love this piece Michele. The culture has their heads stuck in their phones as an excuse to not deal with any need or uncomfortableness that is around them. I intend to pray that before I walk out my door today that God open my eyes and heart to those who need a show of compassion and respect. Then look for it. Hold my head up and engage with the world around me.

    Reply
    • Michele Cushatt

      I’m so guilty of that. I truly make a concerted effort to do otherwise, but just caught myself doing that very thing tonight. Wise words.

      Reply
  5. Wayne Stiles

    My goodness, Michele, don’t ever stop writing. Never stop connecting the dots between the messes of life and how God can redeem them—and us—with the right perspective. Please, keep writing. We need you.

    Reply
    • Michele Cushatt

      Your generous words are a balm. Thank you, Wayne, for the gift.

      Reply
  6. Donna

    Thank for this, putting this so clearly, so lovingly. We need to see others through eyes of God with a loving heart, showing respect, then we will respond appropriately. Thank you for reminding us of this….

    Reply
  7. Wendy Claussen-Schoolmeester

    Such a heart touching post, Michele. Beautiful. I love, LOVE the elderly. During a recent community gathering, I saw an elderly woman walking around and she seemed upset. I stopped and asked if she was okay and she shared with me that she was looking for a restroom. I knew where there was one that was close by so I walked with her there and encouraged her the whole way to hang on and that we were almost there. She kept repeating aloud “I think I waited too long. I think I waited too long.” Knowing her panic, as I had bladder issues a few years back and needed to stay close to bathrooms, I kept reassuring her to hang in there until we reached the bathroom. Her final response to me was ‘You are a God-send.” I did nothing other than walk with her to the restroom and reassure her. Such a small act that meant the world to her.

    I ask the Lord every morning, “What can I do today, Lord, that will bring your joy?” Find those small acts of kindness and spread His love. 🙂 Thank you for this lovely post, Michele!

    Reply
    • Michele Cushatt

      Oh, yes yes yes! Such a sweet gesture. It cost you nothing more than a few minutes. But you rescued her from what could’ve been days/weeks of humiliation and shame. Bless you for that.

      Reply
  8. Jackie

    Gorgeous words from a gorgeous soul. Thank you for reminding us to be a little bit better every day.

    Reply
  9. Danna Demetre

    Thank you once again, Michele – for reminding us of the beauty and value tucked right in with the base and demoralizing moments of life. My mom died this year at 86 of Alzheimer’s. As a former RN also, I watched her become one of the “others” whose lives I’d touched professionally. She was a physical shadow of her former self. But, to the end she cared about her appearance and we pampered her from head to toe at every opportunity until the day she died. I am reminded of my first job at 16 as a nurse’s aide at a nursing home. As I fed an old woman with dementia and looked into her cloudy eyes, I thought – “She knows what it is to be young and full of life. She’s been where I am right now. But, I have no idea what it is to be her and I hope I never know.” Hmmm….at 64…I see this differently. I see the wisdom in mom’s face even when she was not saying anything wise. I see the dignity in aging with grace and a zest for life. And then in a moment of fleshly denial, I look in the mirror and wonder, “Should I get my gray covered this week or next?”

    Reply
    • Michele Cushatt

      It’s been a long time since I was a nurse. But I’d be a far different (and hopefully better) one today. After being a patient for too many years, I understand what we learned in nursing school: it’s more than preserving their health, but also preserving their dignity. I know you know. <3

      Reply
  10. virginia endermann

    Tears. Grief. Compassion. Future for me, future for my spouse.Love.

    Reply
  11. Mary Arps

    Would love to see a follow up article on this with suggestions of “What to Say.” Many people just don’t have the experience or vocabulary to know what to say or how to act. For example, just pretending you didn’t notice. Saying “You’re not the first person that’s happened to…” “I’m glad it was me here instead of someone else….you don’t have to worry about what I think…” etc… I’m sure there are better things to say than what I come up with. I would love to have more options of “blanket statements” to choose from. Great article!

    Reply
  12. Diane McElwain

    Thank you for this. So many people would have the opposite reaction. We need to give much grace to the elderly, much grace and compassion.

    Reply
  13. Elizabeth

    What a beautiful post, Michele. This happened to my 92 year-old precious mother. Her hairdresser handled it with such grace and love.

    Reply
  14. Bonnie

    This was so beautiful. And I can’t think right now to answer your question. Even to give the person money when their total at the grocery store is more than the money they had. Precious post.

    Reply
    • Michele Cushatt

      I’ve seen someone do that. Almost cried. It was beautiful.

      Reply
  15. Stephanie

    To listen… and I mean, really listen. To be present in the moment with others, and to be that shoulder for them to cry on when they need it. To let them know that whatever they’re saying matters. To be respectful and not interrupt.

    Reply
  16. Ray Wells

    What a beautiful story/challenge. Christi Gee (daughter) shared this, and it touches me deeply after just talking with my niece about how painful it is to see her dad in rapid decline. I remember when a teacher rescued a child from an embarrassing accident recognizing an anguished little face, and knowing something was dreadfully wrong she immediately had all the boys and girls leave the room for a bathroom break while she rescued the child and dried up the big spot on the rug. No one knew who, but that one kind, quick-thinking teacher probably saved that child from years of embarrassment. I love the challenge you lay out. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Michele Cushatt

      Love that story. I think I worry that I won’t think as quickly on my feet when the moment comes. Which is why writing this post was as much for me as anyone else. I want to plan for it, look for it, and be ready on a dime to do whatever it takes. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, Ray. Appreciate your insight.

      Reply
  17. Donna Mckenzie

    My hairdresser was running late and I was tired. All I wanted to do was sit in the chair and close my eyes while she cut my hair. Well that was my intent. She sat me down put the cap around my shoulders and asked me how I wanted my hair. I looked at her in the mirror in front of me and I said ” you look beautiful today “! She meet my eyes with hers and tears starting to form in her eyes. She reached around me to hug me and said “thank you that means a lot “! She said “I am exhausted. It’s been a rough few weeks with my boys and I tried extra hard this morning to do my hair and makeup. Hoping to hide my fatigue”. I said you did good!! I started asking questions about her boys and she HAD Really been through it. She has 3 young boys all with special needs. I spent the hour long hair appointment listening to her and hopefully offering her some words of encouragement. I gave her a big hug when she was done and told her she was doing an amazing job with her boys!

    Reply
  18. Abigail Hatch

    My mom is an “alzheimer’s patient who can’t remember her first name.” Thank you so much for this post. <3

    Reply
  19. Bruce Cross

    Michelle, simply a beautiful picture of opening one’s eyes to the world around us, taking notice, and reflecting one’s thoughts. It does not take much in our world to have the opportunity to step in and help another in need. The real question is will be open our hearts to do so and “consider another more important than ourselves.” Great words!

    Reply
  20. Kendra Burrows

    Oh. My. Word. Beautiful. Thank you, Michele.

    Reply
  21. Alice craw

    God bless you. It can happen to any of us

    Reply
  22. Ellen

    Thank you, Michele. Your skillful painting of the scene in the salon made the story that much more heart rending. I too have a memory, from very early in my life, when I waited too long. I’ve never forgotten or, indeed, gotten over the humiliation suffered by that 6-7 year old girl. Thank you for reminding me to be part of the solution when confronted with the humiliation of another. I believe that I haven’t been part of the problem…making anyone feel any worse…but I think my first inclination has been to look away and pretend I haven’t seen.

    Reply
  23. Sally Clark

    Amen Michele! Such a beautiful reminder.
    Yesterday, I went for lab work. I could hear a toddler screaming while the tech worked on him. In a few moments his Mama carried him out and she and he were both sobbing. My heart broke for her and as she hurried to her car all I could do was pray for comfort for this young Mama.
    My name was called and I went back and the tech I had was the same one who had just cared for the crying toddler. She looked exhausted and probably vented more than she should have but…been there done that. I know her from years of labs there and she said “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. The little boy has down syndrome and the Mom came in expecting he would melt down.”
    I said to her it’s not you the Mamas mad at. It’s probably the mountain of tests her baby has been put thru and it hurts her just as bad every time. I said we can pray for that young Mom and her baby.
    Not sure the tech was buying it but I felt I should say something.
    I’m the Mom of a son with autism and there have been many days I have needed those prayers from strangers…days I looked like I was a terrible Mom.
    Praying for you Michele and hope you are feeling well today.

    Reply
  24. Diane Tarantini

    I am a patient woman. I am. I have raised three children and cared for so many animals. And yet, there is one person for whom I have an extreme deficit of patience. It’s a relative of mine, someone I see on a weekly basis. This woman is now failing with dementia. In fifteen minutes, she will ask me the same question at least five times. She will hold my forearm and not want to let go. And I huff. And I correct her. And I turn away. Then I read this post. Yesterday when I saw her, as she over and over asked her one question, I held one word in my mind–your word, Michele–DIGNITY. And I was kinder, gentler. Thanks for your loving correction of my hard heart.

    Reply
  25. Iris

    Thank you for sharing this story. You articulated it with such compassion and love, the emotions just jumped off the page and into my heart. I agree with your friend Wayne, never stop writing! I have experienced this kind of situation from both this lovely woman’s position and from yours, a compassionate observer wanting to know how to make a difficult situation better. Both are humbling.
    I Peter 3:8 “Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.”

    Reply
  26. Jenom

    Thanks Michelle! You just reminded me to be sensitive and nice to people around me. I am committed to helping myself and others steal back dignity.

    Reply
  27. Jane

    So heartfelt, my we go back for caring for others, especially, for the ones who have served us for many years, the helpless, the sick, and weak. God bless you for sharing this.

    Reply
  28. Damon J. Gray

    Okay, so those of you who know me know that I’m a big softie. I teared up as I read of the woman’s plunge from dignity to humiliation. Your heart just breaks!

    It reminded me of a time I got a call from the school because one of my children had a horrible accident in class. He was sitting, humiliated, in the restroom waiting for me to bring him clean clothes. (see, I’m tearing up again just remembering that) It breaks my heart to see people put in positions of shame and embarrassment, and it inflames my ire to see others poke fun at those in compromising situations.

    Thank you Michele for being a champion for dignity. I admire you so much for that.

    Reply

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