June 24 Lay Led Service - To Affirm and Promote the Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every (Good?) Person

We covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

The inherent worth and dignity of every person?

Certainly, our awareness is continuing to increase about the importance of recognizing the ways in which those among us face injustice, oppression, discrimination, or worse. We are witnessing the escalating attack on vulnerable people by our own government including the separation of children from their parents at the borders.

So, what about people persistently doing egregious wrong to others, to the planet? Are we making a covenant to protect their inherent worth and dignity as well?

Fifteen minutes may not be long enough to cover this subject.

But… I will offer a few thoughts, nonetheless.

A perspective: I, personally, see us, as people, connected to, but different from our behavior.

I worked for many years in mental health agencies. My first mental health jobs were working with people discharged from Northampton State (Psychiatric) Hospital. A big part of this was doing outreach to people, many who suffered from schizophrenia. Some refer to people with schizophrenia as schizophrenics. I see them as people with schizophrenia. One guidepost for me as a psychotherapist comes from Carl Rogers who talked about working with psychotherapy clients from a place of “unconditional positive regard”. I interpret that as compassion and conscious attention to our human commonality. That is close to the inherent worth and dignity of each person, with a twist to seek the position and attitude of unconditional positive regard as a way to reach people who chose to be one’s clients and help them evolve in a healthy direction.

I think of one client I worked with back then who had a typical symptom of schizophrenia, a delusional belief that he was being followed by and otherwise under surveillance by the CIA, FBI, others. He would come to my office or we would meet on the street. He would focus on trying to convince me of the reality of this delusion and insisted I confirm I believed this. I didn’t believe this, so what to say. Stepping back from his insistence, it was not hard to see that he was a gentle, friendly, and frightened person. He was frightened because that is a symptom of his mental illness. And he was frightened of the thoughts his mind became fixated on. First, I took time to get to know him and the way he understood the world until we could talk together about what I understood of his experiences. At that point, I felt I could tell him respectfully that I didn’t believe he was under surveillance in specific ways he spoke about. But, I could also tell him that I understood and respected that he had a very different experience. I suggested to him that his life was more than that. I suggested we focus on some of the many other aspects of his life including problems he could solve and ways he could feel better about himself. There were interactions with people he knew, wishes he had, practical things he struggled with, etc. While his mind was, as I see it, incorrectly perceiving some things and he had ongoing problems with such things as hygiene and clothing as many people with schizophrenia do, especially those who were hospitalized for long periods. Otherwise, he was just another person facing problems that anyone in his circumstances would face. I believe we were able to meet person to person at some important level. I believe this helped him. It helped him to trust that I understood him in some ways, which helped him feel comfortable enough to consider suggestions I might make to him. And I believe this approach has helped others.

Sometimes, people have mental illnesses that lead them to be a threat to others. While this constitutes a small minority of those with mental illnesses, one person can pose a big threat and/or a big problem. The criteria of the program I worked under for containing the harmful behavior caused by mental illness, was to find the least restrictive alternative to contain the threat. In other words, see the harmful or threatening behavior as what needs to be contained while affirming the right of the person to be treated respectfully and with compassion and create effective circumstances to contain the threatening or harmful behavior. Now, I will not argue that this approach is perfect, but I find it a valuable way to think about containing harmful behavior and respecting the person.

We read the Seven UU Principles. By no accident the first principle states that we covenant to affirm and protect inherent worth and dignity of every person. The six that follow covenant to accept standards for our behavior towards others and towards the larger world. How do we act on that first principle with those among us who accept none of them? Can we support and affirm the inherent worth and dignity of each person who shows disrespect for the rights of others or who vilifies others without regard to fact or to the cruelty or destructiveness of their actions?

In practical terms, in terms of interactional realities, what benefit could there be to intentionally working to affirm and protect the inherent worth and dignity of every individual? I think that word inherent is significant here. It requires a leap of faith, but if one takes that leap the focus is on seeking something positive. From that perspective, you can speak to the kernel of goodness in that person. Is it there? We don’t know that it isn’t. What happens to us if we focus on the possibility of the person working to uncover the inherent, essential part of who they are? What is more likely to possibly lead to a positive outcome for the person in question, a lack of belief in their inherent worth and dignity or one that encourages them to belief in this? Which interaction is likely to make them more open to hearing what we have to say to them?

If we accept the seven principles of this covenant and take the first principle to mean “every person”, we are forced to struggle with how to support the other principles at the same time. For example, “I cannot condone what you have done, but I encourage you to find and cultivate the goodness that is in you as well.”

I believe this also means avoiding words and behaviors that are unnecessarily harmful to the person doing or having done wrong. In that regard name-calling is a harmful behavior when it identifies the person’s behavior as a fundamental characteristic of that person. One can experience humor or some sort of satisfaction in winning an insult competition with someone, but isn’t that bullying. I think of Donald Trump as someone who lived through an abusive childhood being told that he was not inherently a worthy person, but rather only worthy if he was dominant over others or otherwise successful. He could have been beaten down by this, but he fought back interpreting his experience to mean that it’s a dog eat dog world. At this point in time, to insult him is to confirm that he can’t trust others, they are out to get him, you are out to get him because you see him as the enemy, as an unworthy person. If criticism of him as a person is meant to force him to change, he expects that’s the way the world works and he will fight back with force.

He is not alone in this. Many people, and perhaps men in particular have been indoctrinated with this world view and suffered the consequences from their peer group of defying it.

The first principle, as I see it, challenges us to remember the humanity of each person, including the most difficult and most abusively powerful. I believe this guides us in the direction of healthy interactions with others.

I have pondered the dynamics of demonstrations. I have been to many demonstrations over the years. There is a place for demonstrations where people demonstrate to others in public what they believe in and articulate what they see as wrong or needing correction. However, I have thought more and more that we could use more mass invitations, mass gatherings inviting others to join with us in taking steps towards a better world. The planning would be centered more around how to articulate what we value and what inspires us in a way that attracts a greater variety of people to join the effort.

I saw in yesterday’s New York times that Mr. Trump’s approval rating among identified Republicans is 90%. “Supporters say they defend him because they feel criticism of him is constantly overblown.” My thought: That’s a big percentage. Perhaps some of them actually are reacting to excessive criticism and exaggerated negative characterization. Would an added public voice of invitation to his inherent worth and dignity make a difference to them?

Communicating to Mr. Trump with the chosen belief that there is an essential aspect of him as human being that is inherently worthy, is inviting him to cultivate the demonstration of his dignity. He may not rise to this invitation. However, a communication to him or anyone else is not just a communication with that person, but a communication with friends, allies, and those who identify with him. ***

Spiritually, where do you want to dwell? My father survived a heart attack in 1971. He changed his diet, stopped smoking, and got more exercise. He struggled with stress and irritability. I spoke to him about his irritability especially driving his car. He saw the other drivers as the problem. He said he had a right to be irritated by their driving. I said, “You have a right to choose not to dwell in the land of irritability doing something you otherwise love to do, drive your car.”

Regardless of the practical reason to speak to someone in a way to show you believe in them and avoiding behaviors and words that build walls between ourselves and the other person or persons, I believe it is worthwhile to consider where we want to dwell. We will be in a stronger place if we firmly decide that we want to work towards encouraging others to uncover the treasure that is within them even though it will not change everyone because we begin to deal with a potential discouragement pro-actively. With this stance I believe it possible or presence and invitations can lead some forward. Do you think that taking this stance will be something that will help you feel grounded? Is this covenant with yourself and with the world in keeping with your own positive spiritual and moral beliefs? Where do you want to dwell? What stance is healthier for you and gives you more encouragement to move forward. My father could continue to experience irritability while driving his car or he could recognize that the irritability is extra and unnecessary. He worked towards letting the negative go and decreasing his own distress because, I think, he was rewarded by experiencing less distress and a greater sense of calm and well being. And he lived, fully active to be 92 years old. As he faced surgery, he told the doctors several times, “I know I may not make it, but I have lived a good life and I am at peace with whatever comes.”

I think our principles can be taken as invitation to a path characterized by effective interactions, spiritual congruity, containment of harmfulness in ourselves and others, and the aspiration toward well being for all.