Simple Acts of Dignity and Loving-Kindness

“If we do nothing more than be aware of the essential elements of dignity in our everyday lives and practice honoring dignity, we will be making an enormous contribution to the healing of shared injuries.”¹

Through my work as a chaplain, I have developed a deep appreciation for the healing power of loving-kindness and the fact that human beings have more in common with each other than not. At the heart of what connects us is our vulnerability. Being present with another person, and opening one’s heart and mind to acknowledge and experience another’s humanity, is one of the most precious and most powerful gifts people can share. This profound gift is the experience of human connection.

We have countless ways of showing up and communicating love, concern, support, compassion, interest. A gentle touch, a comforting presence, a tender glance, a listening heart, thoughtful speech, can convey messages beyond words: You are not alone; I care; I am listening; I see you; I am with you; You are loved; I acknowledge and honor your existence. Yet we live in a time in which there’s a deficit of open-hearted and open-minded face-to-face encounters, while divisions among people continue to deepen and spread. Instead of seeing each person as b’tzelem Elohim, created in the image of God, and with “inherent dignity and worth” as the U.N.’s Declaration of Human Rights proclaims, we frequently dehumanize others we do not know. We jump to label them, project identities and intentions on them, without any sense of self-awareness or critique.

As we enter the New Year, I call on us to commit to doing more of what Dr. Donna Hicks calls “simple acts of dignity–listening to people and acknowledging their presence, their experiences, their suffering…”² When we are in touch with our shared vulnerability, when we are open to seeing another person as a human being, a multidimensional, complicated, unique and equally human person with inherent dignity and worth as a person, something so powerful can take place—human connection and from that, healing. Healing for the people involved in the encounter and healing for our broken world.

Engaging in simple acts of dignity can be very challenging for instance when we face people we think we oppose in terms of our values and opinion. Even people who pride themselves on being open-minded have biases, internalized prejudices; they make assumptions and pass judgments without actually knowing the person they judge negatively. No matter how much we learn and know, no matter how wise and caring we may be, to be human is to be limited and imperfect. We can never know all there is to know; we can never always be right; and we are going to make mistakes, again and again, as our High Holidays remind us—year after year. The haftarah we read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I Samuel 1:1-2:10, teaches us, that no matter how much we have accomplished, what our status in society is, how liberal or progressive we are, our initial assumptions about others and the negative judgments we pass are often not only wrong, they can lead to more pain and suffering.

In the haftarah, Eli the High Priest sees a drunk woman mumbling to herself in, of all places, his temple. He confronts this woman, calls her a drunk and then scolds her for her shameful behavior. While Eli does not know who the woman he has just encountered is, we the readers do. We know she is Hannah and not only is she not drunk, as Eli has incorrectly judged, we know that Hannah has been struggling with grief and despair. Despite her immense pain and suffering, she manages to bring herself to the temple to pray. Her words flow from her heart as she speaks to God. Though her lips move, her words are inaudible. From Eli’s perspective, he sees a strange woman moving oddly and concludes that this woman must be inebriated. After Hannah speaks up for herself and Eli actually listens and sees her for who she is, not what he projected onto her, he ends up blessing Hannah.

The other day I heard a moving interview with M.J. Khan, President of the Islamic Society of Houston, who spoke about how his mosque opened its doors and was helping anyone in need as a result of Hurricane Harvey. His voice was warm, gentle and strong—exhausted by all the devastation, need, and grief he had witnessed and experienced, but also deeply inspired and encouraged by what he said were the countless humanitarian gestures he witnessed. His voice quivered and broke as he expressed feeling overwhelmed by the love and care people were giving and receiving at his mosque. He choked up as he said, “I’ve seen stories after stories where people are just pouring out their hearts in these difficult times and it is amazing how much capacity human beings have to help and to love.”

We need each other and are better together. Staying in our confirmation-biased silos is not going to bring more peace into this world; it is not going to ease pain and suffering. Some may say, justice by any means necessary, but as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela and others have taught and demonstrated, justice and loving-kindness are not mutually exclusive. We need them both.

On Rosh Hashanah, as we stand before God and our fellow people–as human beings, individuals among billions, all equally human and each also remarkably unique, all trying to get through in this life and stumbling, bumbling at times, making mistakes–let us also be reminded of our immense capacity to do good, to love, and help one another.

May we strive to be open to, and learn from, each person we meet, to practice humility and simple acts of dignity throughout our day. May this new year, 5778, be a year of spreading more love, understanding, and kindness as we work to reduce pain and suffering and promote and foster healing and well-being.

 

¹Hicks, Donna.(2011). Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflicts. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p. 197.
²ibid.

Rabbi Erica Steelman is Staff Chaplain at the Madlyn and Leonard Abramson Center for Jewish Life in North Wales, PA. She is also the founder and director of the Abramson Center’s LGBTQ Initiative and Task Force. She lives in Philadelphia, PA.