Human Dignity · Special Needs

Lessons on Human Dignity

photo credit: mckaysavage Argentina – Buenos Aires 083 – San Telmo Market via photopin (license)

Some months ago I was taking my two older girls to do some community service at a group home for those with developmental and physical disabilities. One of my daughters in particular seems to derive her sense of self-worth from her talents. She can get really down on herself if she doesn’t live up to her very high standards. I, of course, want her to base her sense of self worth on the fact that she is a daughter of The King, made out of love and made to love. I wanted to let my children know what to expect when we went to the group home, but as I did so, I found a story coming out of my mouth about human dignity.

So, as my children and I stood around the kitchen table getting ready to eat supper, I told them that there are two types of value. “There is the value of things and the value of persons,” I said. “The value of things depends on their ability to perform a certain function. For example, my pots and pans are things.” I pointed to a pot on the stove. “I have them in order to cook with them. If one of them were to get a hole in it and I could no longer cook with it, then the pot wouldn’t have much value anymore and I would likely throw it away. This is fine because the pot is a thing. When it comes to the value of persons, however, it’s different. Our value as persons in no way depends on our ability to perform any kind of function. Take Dad, for instance. He works many hours a day and because of his knowledge and skills, he is able to earn money to pay for our house, all our food, all our clothes, and everything we need. He also helps out around the house. He does so many things.” Then I pointed to their baby brother. “But look at Mateo. He can’t do any of the things Dad can do. He can’t even feed or toilet himself. He can’t help out or even sit up by himself. He depends on others to do everything for him. When it comes to the worth and dignity of Dad and Mateo, however, they have the same amount. Dad and Mateo have the same value because when it comes to people, our value comes not from our talents, our success, or our ability to do anything. It comes from the fact that we are loved by God and created in His image and likeness.”

I hoped they’d understood. My daughter who struggles with accepting her own limitations loved it at the group home. Though she doesn’t always pick up on social cues, she does often pick up on the needs of people. She often chooses to write letters to those who are infirm and she is the one who chooses to help me the most with household chores. Overwhelmed in large groups, she really shines one-on-one where she can be a listening ear or an attentive presence. As we were returning home I heard her tell her sister, “They are like Mateo! They have the same dignity.” I didn’t hear what was said before this, but it made me happy that she seemed to take to heart the lesson. I hoped too, that actually having spent some time with persons with severe disabilities, it would put real faces on the lesson that one’s worth doesn’t depend on ability.

Of course, in this culture of death that we live in, very little value is placed on the worth of persons. With this comes it’s unavoidable companion — the cult of busyness. If people are not valuable by the mere fact of their existence, if our lives can be rendered worthless by our being inconvenient or burdensome, then all of us necessarily have to prove ourselves worthy by how productive we are, and how much we can achieve. By our lives of unending activity we proclaim, “Look at how important I am! I’m so busy because so much depends on me! I’m essential! I’m necessary!” In reality, we are essential and needed, but not because of our productivity, but by the fact that we are loved unconditionally by Love Himself.

photo credit: yooperann Rest + Relax via photopin (license)

The anecdote to all our frenetic busyness is to allow ourselves to rest. Resting and leisure is both an act of humility and of affirmation of our great dignity. When we rest from all our work to do something we love to do and that nourishes our spirit, whether that is reading, gardening, sewing, fishing, coffee with friends, or even catching up on sleep, we proclaim that our value does not lie in our productivity. At the same time to truly rest is an act of humility because we have to realize that the world will still continue without us. For me at least, I think sometimes my pride wants me to believe in how vital and important all the work that I do is. I’m not saying my work is worthless. I believe strongly in its value or I wouldn’t do it. But pride wants me to believe that it all depends on me and me alone. And that is the folly. In reality it depends upon God and we are just unworthy servants. I think it takes a certain amount of humility to allow others to help us.

In fact, our humility must go beyond allowing others to help. We must allow others to know what we do and how we do it. That is, we must be willing to make ourselves expendable.

I think this is why Christ’s yoke is easy and His burden light. We work, but we allow others to help us and we make sure we have rest and soul-nourishing leisure. If we are so busy with the Kingdom that our soul’s suffer (and our families), then something tells me we must be going about things the wrong way.

May we truly know our self-worth does not depend on the success of our work and so, although we may pour our hearts and souls into our tasks, in the end the work is the Lord’s and we must approach the results of our work with a certain amount of detachment, and experience the freedom that comes from it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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