Inherent Worth and Dignity

I hope that my American readers will understand that the men who founded this country separated us from the King of England by professing what we, the people of the United States, wanted to prove to the world. One statement made in that very declaration was the “we hold these truths to be self evident; that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights“. We of the UUA refer to those truths in the first principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

We hold this principle to be self evident; we are all human, and as such, we are each born with similar abilities and limitations.  Some of us have a talent or an inclination for certain types of contributions, and some of us have significant limitations in certain areas. Even while acknowledging those differences, the UU movement says that we can all choose to contribute, and that we all have something to offer; each and every one of us has inherent value. We don’t need Divine Revelation or Holy Writ to confirm it, a brief look at history tells us that Thomas Edison was dyslexic and Helen Keller was a notable lecturer and activist. I used to work in a residential facility for adults, many of whom were profoundly limited in their development, but some of those people had such a great attitude that it was a joy to be there helping them; there is no disability that prevents a person from adding value to the world.

We promote this idea with little gestures: smiling at people we pass through out the day; thanking people for little courtesies, to encourage civil behavior. We do things for our communities by sponsoring initiatives like the Welcoming Congregation program, to train our staffs to meet the needs of different gender expressions and orientations. We act in our communities to support civil rights, education and available health care so that no one is denied the chance to pursue happiness. On the national level, the Standing on the Side of Love campaign seeks to bring all families together and offer them a chance to better their lot in life, from immigration reform to gender equality.

By promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we assert the value of human life and humanity as a whole. We can look at human history and see that innovation and invention come from all races, cultures, economic groups and ability levels. When the need arises, we can’t predict who will supply the tipping point for change. Every person is born a valuable member of society; it is up to us to foster that value, helping them find ways to contribute and  grant them the dignity we all crave.

We do ourselves great harm when we give up on a person or a community. We risk loosing all the things they could teach, improve or invent in their lives. When we devalue even one human life, we devalue our parents, our children and our communities by saying that the base line value of a human being has been lowered, and it becomes that much harder to prove your worth. When America ended slavery, we earned the works of George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. Slavery has not ended in the world, and there is no way to know how much humanity has lost by repressing the millions of men, women and children of the world?

This first principle sets the stage for the rest by placing us in the mindset that we have to look at a person as a whole. Not just for what they’ve done or said that harms us, or even helps us, but for all they have made of themselves and all that they might do. We look at this in a positive light, ascribing as much value and dignity to them as their actions allow and hoping to inspire them to create more. We set a positive example in our relationships, and a positive expectation for people to live up to. I don’t think it is at all random that this is the first principle; this it is a crucial principle in shaping the way we interact with each other. By affirming and promoting this first principle, we empower all people to live up to the remaining six.


5 Responses

  1. “We promote this idea with little gestures: smiling at people we pass through out the day;”

    I know it’s a little point in your blog post – but this has been my biggest culture shock trigger both in Paris and in London. People in really big cities don’t do that. And it creates a huge distance between oneself and one’s neighbors. It’s the thing that makes me miss Texas the most…

    Otherwise, beautifully written and expressed!

    • I admit that I find it lacking in Dallas, and more infrequent in Denton now than when I first moved there at the end of the 90s years ago, but it happens in Ft Worth and in other towns in Texas that I frequent.

      Maybe some people never have seen it enough to miss it, but that just makes it more crucial that we, who know what kind of difference it can make in the attitude of a person for the whole day, share our smiles. We need to show people that the little kindnesses matter. If you brighten one person’s day, that spreads to all the people they interact with in that day. It can be contagious, if we can hit the tipping point.

    • I think there may be a balance issue involved here…

      When I was a child in the suburbs… really the very fringes of the city I lived in… we had a quarter acre under our house and knew all our neighbors.

      When I moved into an apartment in the city, I could actually hear my neighbors through the walls and never said one word to them… it’s as if we were creating distance socially because we had none physically.

      The more privacy we have, the more we restore balance by reaching out. The less we have, the more we close ourselves off…

      at least, that’s been my theory for a while.

  2. I don’t know if too much can be said about inherent worth.

    In particular, I’m curious about your message on inherent worth to those who may question their own value.

    We live in a materialistic society, and regardless of the principles our nation may have been based on, in reality people are usually judged by “what they can bring to the table.” Consumerism promotes the idea that whatever it is you’ve done so far, it’s still not enough.

    How do you begin to reverse these negative messages?


    • I don’t think any healthy person fails to question their value once in a while. Some take it to extremes, and we need to remember that there are a lot of factors in mental health to take into account.

      We can only combat those feelings, in the doubter and in society at large, with education. We have a long road ahead, but what we are working to do is convince the world that every person has value. That means you, as well as the person next to you and across town. The hardest part, in fact, may be convincing people that attitude matters; how you look at the world effects what you see in it. When you chose to see the good in people, then it becomes easier for them to see it in themselves, and easier to manifest good things in the world.

      So, we reverse the negative by refusing to buy into it. We promote the worth of people by down-playing the value of things. We promote dignity by insisting on it. When we buy fair-trade goods, or (better yet) locally grown or made products, we declare that we are willing to put our money where our mouths are and vote in the most democratic way we can for dignity and humanity. It does matter what we do. It does matter that some people are more talented or skilled. That doesn’t mean that people who are doing their best and who want to do more to improve the world they live in, don’t deserve respect, too.

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