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Dignity - 6

Having completed my manuscript, The Question of Empathy, one may be tempted to conclude that I had found my way through an ancient thicket, and stand now in the clearing with some 76,000 words’ worth of answers purporting to shed at least a little light on the most nagging of questions: if we have the capacity to be (more) empathic, then why aren’t we? But no, a prickly darkness persists as Empathy the protagonist (anti-hero?) in this story remained elusive—exasperating—to the end, leaving me/us with only a dream of what might still be possible. We can be better.


And here I am again, wandering among the brambles determined this time to avoid the thorns even as I dig into the dream bequeathed, and explore another character in the story still unfolding. Perhaps Dignity is the one to pursue, the one less absurd and more willing to prick the mysteries of human nature, and explain why we may or may not be left bleeding. 


So I must ask what role might Dignity play, and in what guise will it appear? Will it be recognizable only as an honorable, serious-minded figure standing in the briars tall and unscathed? An impeccable character, indeed, who is composed, respectable, and worthy of bringing Empathy’s dream to life? Or will Dignity, like Empathy before it, reject the stereotypes, and show itself in other, more colorful costumes?


Perhaps Dignity is most particular, appearing only when conditions are right; during the long hours of hard work, for instance, when the brow seats in the field, and the back strains under the load, and the family sits down together to share a meal at the end of the day. Or perhaps it is Dignity keeping vigil at the death bed, offering the most potent kind of palliative care.


Is it Dignity who guides the bioethicist’s thinking, or lends a hand to the psychologist working to restore a patient’s self-respect? Does the warden count on Dignity to serve up the condemned prisoner’s last meal? Does the prisoner trust Dignity to walk the last mile? 


How strong and clear is Dignity’s doctrinal presence in the world’s great religions? Are its most honorable traits and shining ideals held up as standards to be met by citizens of the secular world? Universal principles, perhaps, enshrined in codes of conduct for all of us to practice? How important might they be to the Geneva Convention, the UN Charter, or the U.S. Constitution?


And where is the art of Dignity to be found? Might it show itself in the formality and finery of a Rembrandt portrait? What about in the tragedy of Van Gogh’s face? In the private world of Degas ballerina preparing for a performance, or in the intimate moments of a Cassatt woman drying herself after the bath?


How about Dignity the scientist? Who does it collaborate with in the research lab?  The neuroscientists bent on unlocking the secrets of human consciousness? Or would it be the clinicians? The ophthalmologists who restore sight? The orthopedic surgeons replacing joints, the physical therapists making the prosthetics work? How much is Dignity willing to divulge about its work, scientific or otherwise? And when will it reveal its loyalties and alliances—its complicated entanglements? At the end of the day, what does Dignity pledge to us, and how much will it give to Empathy’s project of freeing the dream snagged by the thorny thicket?


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