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.
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.
[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]