I wrote a short chapter in my novel 'Beauty Pageants to Brothels' about dignity - it's a true story that happened to me years ago when I was learning how to identify with vulnerable people. It was one of the more challenging weekends (and something I would like to not repeat) though I have encouraged many to go through the experience I went through. When I think about humanity, but especially my work with vulnerable women, I think the greatest gift I can give in a moment to a person is dignity. I never realised that the way I look at someone and how I treat them in a small interaction can have so much power until I encountered it myself.
The following is a short story (names have been changed) where I learned the valuable lesson of dignity.
Window to the Soul,
At four in the morning that first night, as rain came flooding into my sleeping bag, I huddled with misery under the makeshift cardboard tent. ‘I wanna go home,’ I moaned for the thirteenth time.
‘Sweetie, we spent money to do this; we are not leaving,’ Michael said.
The shy sun peaked through overcast clouds, and I awoke after maybe an hour of sleep. With matted hair, a pasty complexion, and oversized clothes I had picked out in the charity shop, I resembled a long-haired rodent lugging itself out of the sewer.
There was an organisation, near where I lived in Texas, committed to helping combat poverty. Not only were they effective in the poverty-stricken areas of the community, but they also held informative activities to promote awareness. One weekend, my husband and I paid to be homeless.
In order to play the part of a ‘homeless’ person, we weren’t allowed to lie, but we weren’t really permitted to divulge that we had education from a university and that within 24 hours we would drive home in our car and sleep in a comfortable bed.
We began with a scavenger hunt, a list of items to try to find. We scoured rubbish bins and skips (dumpsters) discovering with horror the items which people casually throw away. Our second task was to collect small change for our lunch.
Having walked over most of the city before noon, our group of four was hungry and motivated. We reached a strip of several trendy restaurants; Michael and I had gone out to one of them for a meal only a week beforehand.
I approached three girls, students at my university. ‘Do you have any spare change?’ I asked.
They scanned my clothes and appearance, repulsed; I saw the conveyor-belt thoughts run through their heads, questioning what drugs I would spend the money on, what my real motive was and so on. I repeated the question.
‘Sure. Erm, here’s a quarter,’ one of the girls said, quickly pulling her hand away from mine.
Their eyes, with their pitying glances and their looks of disgust, tried to take something from me. I wanted to scream at them and say, Look, I have a degree. I make money. I have a savings account. We own two cars. I refrained and stared back at them in sadness and anger.
I carried the memory of those eyes through the rest of the weekend. Part of the purpose was to help us experience the emotions of the homeless – the helplessness, the hopelessness and, most of all, the lack of dignity.
That Saturday night, I cried in the corner as we had a banquet representing different areas of the globe. We drew lots, and my meal was from a Third World country. I ate rice. Two of my friends ate steak, with ample side dishes and generous portions. They looked sick as they watched their friends eat so little. The whole weekend experience made a lasting impression on me.
The girls outside the restaurant had tried to take something from me. I was furious but knew they could not fully steal my dignity even if they tried; I wouldn’t let them.
But now I am on the 'other side'. How I treat and how I look at people can be the difference of giving or stealing dignity- no matter who they are or what they have done.
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