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Living with Dignity

Thought for the Day - BBC Radio 4 Today Programme

Monday, 17th January, 2022

Good morning. The recent rollercoaster of allegations about famous people behaving badly has left many feeling disillusioned and even betrayed. Whether in politics, royalty or sport, we expect those in public positions to set an example by carrying out their roles with respect and dignity.

The concept of dignity has a complicated history. In ancient Greek and medieval thought, it was primarily associated with the status and duties of men in high office, but today we have a more universal and egalitarian understanding. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights takes as its founding principle the claim that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. From a Christian theological perspective, human dignity derives from being made in the image of God, and from the belief that in Jesus Christ, God bestowed the glory of the divine upon humankind. We know that ideas about intrinsic human dignity are violated all the time in practice, but that doesn’t mean that they have no claim upon us.

A society and its institutions are judged by the characters of their leaders and representatives, which is why we expect the highest standards of them and why their behaviour can arouse in us a shared sense of shame or pride. That image of the Queen masked and alone at Prince Philip’s funeral dignified the monarchy by her sense of public duty and awareness of the symbolic significance of her role. I have absolutely no interest in football, but I shared the admiration and respect of many for England’s manager Gareth Southgate during last year’s UEFA football championships. He exercised leadership in a way that brought dignity to the whole team and indeed to his country, even or especially in defeat.

We live in a culture of vacuous celebrities and overblown personalities, but we still recognise behaviour that dignifies and that which demeans. During the pandemic, it has been dedicated doctors and nurses, those with no public status who have kept essential services running, and those who have endured illness and bereavement while respecting lockdown rules, who have shown the greatest sense of duty and earned our respect. When we see an image of an exhausted nurse, face chafed by long hours of wearing a PPE mask, we’re witnessing a person of dignity. It’s not about status or fame, bravado or success, but about bringing to whatever role we have in life a sense of duty and care which puts others before self and strives to give of our very best.

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