More than anything else, I think what we take from each other without realizing, or perhaps without caring, is dignity. We live in a world that teaches us to tell our own story, to make our own way, to push through the tangle to get wherever we're going; we don't even notice when there's another man in that tangle.
And dignity, once lost, is so, so difficult to get back.
I've had a lot of thoughts about this over the years without even really thinking about it. I've had a lot of gut reactions to the loss of dignity, a lot of ideas about how we - or how I - "get past" this gnawing depravity. About just what it takes to get dignity back, if ever it is possible at all. All of these instincts, all these thoughts, have produced primarily two reactions to depravity.
The first is to look at oneself and simply say, Have some dignity, man. Take it back. Declare it. Stand firm on it. Stand obstinate on it. Protect your dwindling dignity at all costs, even while this world continues to try to take it from you. It sounds good. It sounds...proactive. It sounds like this is a man taking personal responsibility, taking ownership of his own dignity and doing whatever it takes to hold onto it. What took me years to realize is that dignity is not like integrity; one cannot simply choose dignity. When he tries, it comes off more as arrogance. It comes off as aggressiveness. It comes off as a man who is anything but at peace with himself, as a man who is trying a bit too hard to believe in what he is.
You see, dignity is that thing that makes us feel whole within ourselves. It's a harmonious relationship with our own spirit where we realize all that we are, all that we are endowed with as images of the creator. Dignity tells us what love is supposed to look like. It tells us what grace means. It's a realistic image of ourselves and how, as men, we ought to be treated. In dignity, we understand just how God loves us because we realize we are meant to be loved just as we are. It's acceptance of ourselves just as we are. When we hold too firmly onto that, it's arrogance. It's self-centeredness. It's not humbling. And when it's not humbling, it cannot tell us anything about love or grace or the good things. That's why this first reaction is dangerous.
The second reaction we typically have is equally dangerous - it is to deny the importance of dignity altogether. It is to forsake trying to be whole within ourselves at all. We break ourselves apart daily, just to shield our hearts from the indignity...all the while willingly giving ourselves to depravity. It's the woman who has been violated and now thinks so little of herself that she works as a prostitute. She could not protect herself, so now, she no longer tries. She gives herself too freely because it's easier than trying to believe that she has anything to hold onto. It's the man who has been repeatedly shamed and now creates his own quietness because it's easier to take away your voice than to consider that you might have one at all. He has never been valued, and now, he does not value himself so that no one else can take him away from himself; he has already done so.
Denying our dignity distances us from ourselves. We don't have to bear the weight of brokenness because we have forsaken any concept of the whole. We never were, therefore we cannot be. We are not, so it's okay that this world merely confirms that. What's troubling about this is that in denying dignity, we give up ourselves. We give up everything that God created in us and, distanced from ourselves, we are distanced from Him. Apart from Him, we are void of meaning. We are void of purpose. We are void of passion. We are simply void. It's tragic.
Yet these are our two options when dignity is destroyed. When this world speaks against our wholeness of self, this is all we can do. Neither is particularly dignifying.
What has taken me years to come to know, and only through the experience of it being able to truly understand, is that dignity is not something we simply have. It's not so easy. Dignity is always given. At our creation, it was given to us by God, who had for us an image of our wholeness. When it is taken away, when it is stolen from us, when it is broken into depravity, we can't simply take our dignity for ourselves; it must be given back to us.
If you ask, if you pray, if you truly believe, God will give it back to you. God will give you back this sense of yourself. And sometimes, by the grace of God, man will give it back to you, too. How does this happen? Easy. A man looks at you and treats you with the dignity you never thought you had. He patiently, persistently, and purposefully respects the wholeness of your person until one day you realize something feels different inside of you. The things you once thought didn't matter, the sacrifices you've made to deny your dignity, matter. They suddenly make all the difference in the world. All the things you were holding onto show themselves as cheap substitutes and it doesn't matter any more whether you can prove yourself; you feel validated just for breathing. A man treats you like a man (or a woman treats you like a woman...or whatever mix thereof) and for the first time in a long time, you feel like just that. You feel like a man. You feel like a woman. Your dignity is back. You can breathe again.
For all that we do to hold onto what shreds of dignity remain or deny them altogether, we can never restore ourselves to wholeness. Dignity is a gift that must be given. So maybe the answer to depravity in our world is not our own dignity, but another's. Extend the gift of dignity from your own broken hand and give another man back to himself. And may you one day find the hand that will give you back to you.