Return Again: Human Dignity

Return again, return again, return to who you are . . .

I continue to have this theme of who we are arise in my daily life.  It comes in many forms, and because it does, it seems to want to surprise me in and underneath different faces.

There is the website that a friend and colleague sent to me earlier in the summer about the way that adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s) actually change the human brain and
DNA.  I began pouring over the students I have taught in recent years who likely were those children, walking into my room with experiences I could not begin to imagine. Then, on Sunday, as I was driving to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Gwinnett, I heard a piece of a TED Radio show highlighting the work of pediatrician, Nadine Burke Harris, who has been key in working with children who experiences large numbers of ACE’s.  Not only do these adverse childhood experiences change the brain and change DNA, but interventions by physicians, social workers, teachers and other responsive adults also change the brain and human DNA–in a healing way!

Then, one day, a young man bursts into my room, disrupting the class that I had been teaching for nearly half an hour, shouting:  hey, I’m in your class.  He had missed not only most of that class, but he had also missed the first two weeks of school. It’s easy to see others who burst upon us like that as irritating and a problem. I want to choose to see the human being and the dignity underneath the face of the one who bursts into the room.

Another student shared with me recently that he got a ticket and two points on his insurance because another driver called 911 and reported him for reckless driving.  The police officer did not witness any reckless driving. The officer wrote the ticket based on the 911 caller alone. After listening to the story, I had to ask this African American male student:  did you see the other driver.  Yes, he did.  Was the other driver white?  Yes, a white woman. And I was left wondering–did she just see the black male face and decide that he needed to be reported?  Another example of driving while black? How could this woman have seen the human being I know–not aggressive, funny, intelligent young man? If the caller had been black and the young driver white and female, would the officer have given a ticket on hearsay? How do we find ways to allow ourselves to return to human dignity?

And then, I spent over 24 hours on a FB thread trying to hold the line on what I consider to be human dignity with a religious woman who insists that government is good when it enforces her religious ideas on others.  There were moments through that on again, off again conversation when I felt like the two of us were trying to see and hear each other, but when it meant having to loosen the grip on religious doctrine, the chasm between us reappeared.  Was I too bull headed?  Why couldn’t she see the human dignity at risk if her religious positions are made law?

The more that human dignity–seeing it, hearing it, caring about it, responding to it–arises in my life, the more questions I have.  Rilke urges me to live into the questions.  Mary Oliver urges me to hear the honking of the geese overhead as a reminder.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I want to be reminded.  I need to be reminded, especially when I run into you–that you have your place in the world, in the family of things, and that that place is, all by itself worthy of honor, respect and veneration.

Bob Patrick

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