South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu tells how, when he was a child of nine, he was completely taken aback when he watched a white priest, Father Trevor Huddleston, tip his hat at Tutu’s mother, who was a domestic worker in a hospital for the blind. Tutu could hardly wrap his mind around the gesture – in 1940s South Africa, for a white man to show a black woman such a sign of respect was a thing rarely seen. In a single act, Father Huddleston acknowledged that this woman was valuable – that there was a loveliness in her that most white South Africans could not see. And it blew little Desmond away.
People sometimes ask what has been my guiding principle as I write the stories, and I always answer with just two words: Human dignity. While the answer might sound straightforward (and perhaps a little idealistic), it is actually a surprisingly hard principle to follow.
Don’t get me wrong. Writing about the peace heroes was an incredible privilege. Often – so often – I came away from a day of intense research feeling both dazed and awed – completely inspired by the life-journey I had just read or written about. It was, in many ways, a very humbling experience – I constantly felt like I was in the presence of greatness. And yet, even as I was blown away by these stories, over the course of three years my eyes were increasingly opened to the unbelievable pain and suffering experienced by so many different people all over the world. Sometimes I was fairly traumatized by my research, feeling sick to the stomach, for example, when reading up on the various methods of torture in Argentina’s Dirty War, or the horrendous (and surprisingly recent) genocide of Maya Indians in Guatemala. Once, when I was researching the Lord’s Resistance Army and its use of child soldiers in Uganda, I actually had to walk away from my screen – so disturbing were the stories I was reading and the pictures I was seeing. But the hardest by far were the weeks and months I spent researching and writing about Israeli and Palestinian peace heroes, because it brought the deep pain and suffering right into my own reality – it was too tangible, too terrible, too close to home.
It was here that I discovered one of the subtler pitfalls embedded in writing about difficult situations, as it began to dawn on me that the way I chose to tell the peace heroes’ stories could actually undermine the very thing for which I was honoring them. What I mean by this is that it is quite easy, when caught up in the story of some person’s (or people’s) hardship, to affirm their dignity at the expense of another’s. Recognizing this, I soon learned to stop and ask myself in every instance of my writing: is my narrative upholding the human dignity of all persons involved in this story? Sometimes, as the examples above indicate, this made the writing very difficult. But it was not a value I was willing to compromise on. If there is one message I hoped to get across through the stories it was that every person has worth – and that it is our responsibility to see that worth and do all we can to uphold and honor it.
But there is another pitfall hidden in this guiding principle, and that is the unintentional reinforcement of the same unequal power dynamics we are hoping to challenge and transform. It took me a while to understand this, but I gradually came to see that dignity is not something to be meted out at will but a solid fact – something that is always present, whether we see it or not. Dignity is not something that can be given or withheld – it is intrinsic to each and every one of us by virtue of our being human. And yet, though none of us has the power to take away someone’s dignity, we most certainly can abuse it, which is what happens when we are blind to the worth of our fellow human beings. In other words, it is our own blindness that causes us to trample on the dignity of another – not a “lesser” dignity on their part. When we strip people of their dignity, we are simply exposing our own shortsightedness; we reveal to the world how blind we are. We show our weakness, not our strength.
Just as it is not within our power to remove dignity from another person, neither are we able to bestow it on others. There is a subtle but important distinction between the idea of giving someone their dignity as opposed to revealing the dignity that is already in them. To think that we can give someone their dignity is to maintain a certain kind of condescension towards the one we believe we are “helping.” When Father Huddleston tipped his hat at Mrs. Tutu, he was not giving her back her dignity. Rather, he was acknowledging (and revealing) what was already there – he was seeing her as she truly was, apart from the identity (or non-identity) that had been imposed on her by South Africa’s social constructs. It was an incredibly simple act, but Huddleston’s ability to see beyond the surface might very well have changed the course of South Africa’s history. For didn’t his action spark something in a small black boy who would later rise up to be one of the greatest defenders of human dignity in the history of that nation?
Let us not underestimate the transformative power of right seeing. While we do not have the power to take from people their intrinsic worth, we do have the capacity to make it visible. Sometimes it takes courage to see the loveliness in those around us, especially when there is seemingly nothing lovely to see. But history has been rewritten by people who have found a way to see beyond, to see otherwise. This is the invitation that dignity extends. The question is: will we accept it?