For many years I thought about dignity, investigated it, explored its use in my times.
Then one year, I discovered my personal definition of dignity. It was specific and useful.
At the time, I was working at a job I loved: staff development coordinator for teachers. I thought of myself as the supply line, getting valuable resources to people in the trenches: teachers in classrooms. I often heard from teachers that they spent most of their work days without seeing or speaking to another adult, so when they asked me for help, I smiled, greeted them cheerfully, listened closely.
During my time at this job, education was changing rapidly. Cooperative learning, non-gender based mathematics, and personal learning plans for special needs kids: all these were suddenly being expected of every teacher. Part of my job was to keep up with these changes, which meant constant learning. My brain reveled in the excitement of this challenge. I also communicated with teachers about these changes: sending them to workshops, speaking at their staff meetings, connecting them with other teachers.
This, absolutely, was my favorite job of all time. Every morning, when I woke up and put my feet on the floor beside my bed, I thanked every lucky star that I was getting paid to have so much fun, and make a positive difference for teachers in my community.
Then, our state passed a bill harshly limiting taxation. School districts were facing reduced revenues. Many budget items, including staff development, were deemed unnecessary. I was facing the end of the job I loved.
In fact, I knew for many months that I would be laid off.
As I faced that prospect, day after day, I realized I couldn't change the circumstances of my lay-off, but I had control over myself. What did I want to do, and how did I want to be treated?
First, I wanted to know what was happening. How was the new law actually affecting school districts? What budget discussions were being held at my organization? Were there other options for employment for me? Some days, honestly, I wanted to hide my head under a pillow and ignore everything. But those times were fewer than my craving for information.
Second, I wanted to speak out about this situation. Although I complained to friends and family (one way of speaking out), I didn't complain at work. Twice, I spoke to the Board of Director of my organization, which was made up of 14 school superintendents, only one of which was a woman. It was an intimidating body, but I reminded them of the good work I had done and would continue to do on behalf of their teachers. I asked repeatedly to be kept in their budgets.
Third, denied the possibility of keeping my job, I wanted some control over how I would leave it. Being an optimist, I wanted to believe that someone else might hold that job in the future. With that unknown person in mind, I threw nothing away, but rather "wrapped up" my job, like a "present" to the future: carefully filing all my projects, labeling all the boxes, storing them with my own hands. I attended every meeting that I had always attended and gave final reports and a few tips on new education advancements.
I kept thinking that I wanted to be treated with dignity; with that feeling from the Christian Science Monitors I had reviewed.
How would I know if I was being treated with dignity during that painful time? As Wikipedia indicates, it's great to talk about, but not easily described.
Based on what I wanted (see above), I came up with these criteria for myself: voice, choice and information.
If I was given these elements while going to final meetings, boxing up of files and turning in paperwork, then I could assume I was treated with dignity and leaving my favorite job would not hurt quite so bad.
I had finally found a working definition for the word "dignity" that matched the tone I had discovered in the Christian Science Monitor newspapers all those years before.
Could I use this definition beyond that time of stress?