Why Dignity? My proposed edit to the first principle

July 17, 2011

Unitarian-Universalism is not a religion based on rote. So, it’s not too surprising that even those who attend services regularly may be hard-pressed to recite our seven principles verbatim. Most can manage what we call the first principle In this, we covenant to affirm and promote: “the inherent worth and dignity of every individual.”

Since the seven principles were adopted in 1966, you can imagine the number of times this sentence has been repeated. Ours is a faith in which every person is important. Even those who we do not agree with or those who do horrible things, they have worth and dignity.

The worth part is easy to understand. But, lately, I’ve started to wonder if we might have been better off choosing a word besides dignity. What is dignity, after all? Is it something worth affirming and promoting? Does it need to be affirmed in every individual?

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary offers four definitions for the word, dignity:

  1. the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed
  2. a : high rank, office, or position b : a legal title of nobility or honor
  3. archaic : dignitary
  4. formal reserve or seriousness of manner, appearance, or language

Let’s assume that we can rule out the possibility that those who drafted the principles intended definitions 2 or 3 as a meaning here, as official ranks or legal titles shouldn’t have been part of what we were trying to convey about all people. So, we’re left with a restatement of worth (1), or (4) “a formal reserve of seriousness of manner, appearance, or language.” A good description of what drove me away from Sunday services, and is probably keeping many “unchurched” from giving our congregations a try.

Who wants to be reserved and serious on Sunday morning, when we have to stuff ourselves into those kinds of boxes in so many other of life’s circumstances? Wouldn’t we be better off if we tried to be a little less serious?

Pondering this word reminded me of a story about Maria Von Trapp, the real life Maria who Rodgers and Hammerstein immortalized in the musical The Sound of Music. After fleeing Nazi-ruled Austria, the Von Trapp family came to America and tried to earn a living by performing their wonderful music. But at first it didn’t go very well. The audiences here weren’t really connecting to the singers who performed in what can only be described is a very “dignified” manner. Then one night, a bug flew into Maria’s mouth, almost choking her in the middle of the performance. Chagrined, at the end of the song, the former nun explained to the audience that she had missed notes because something that had never happened to her before had just happened: she had swallowed a fly. The audience broke into laughter and the rest of the performance went better than any previous. Maria later wrote: “The spell was broken…Three cheers for the fly!”

Should we all take ourselves a little less seriously?

When I was a lay leader of my congregation, I considered each sermon I presented a success only if I got the congregation to break out into laughter at least once. One of the “sermons” I gave which I am most proud of was nothing more than a recitation of some of the many oft-repeated jokes about Unitarian-Universalists. Hopefully you know some of them, and perhaps could add more to the list:

  • What do you get when you cross a Unitarian with a Jehovah’s Witness? Someone who knocks on your door but can’t tell you why.
  • A bride-to-be wanted to make something special for her honeymoon. When asked how much fabric she wanted for her neglige, she told the clerk: 30 yards – my fiancé is a Unitarian, so he’d rather seek than find.
  • A man buys a new sports car and decides he wants a holy person to bless it. After being turned away by dozens of clergy from other denominations who have to ask “What’s a Ferrari?” he ends up in front of a UU minister. “I just have one question,” the minister says, “What’s a blessing?”

These are just the best of those that I can remember off the top of my head.

I should also put this service into context. It was the last time I was scheduled to speak at the end of a church year, so I had decided to cut loose in the pulpit. Then, a few days before that Sunday, a long-term member and past president of our congregation died suddenly of a heart attack. I wondered if I could go through with my plan, or if it would be disrespectful. But then I remembered that the recently-passed congregant himself had once told a slightly off-color joke during announcements and joys and concerns.

I had a brief phone conversation with his widow that Friday night. It started awkwardly, as I said all those things we all repeat despite our worries that they will sound hollow and meaningless, “I’m so sorry,” “He’ll be missed,” “He was a joy in life.” Then I mentioned my plan for Sunday and how the memory of her husband telling a joke made me feel he’d appreciate it. It was as if the phone was suddenly passed to a different person. My friend laughed one of those great laughs that comes through pain like sunshine breaking through clouds. She approved of my telling jokes in her husband’s honor, and felt he would have to.

When I say that I am proud of that sermon, it’s not only because I felt I really did honor that long-time friend in a way that would have made him proud. It’s also because afterward, another long-term friend, and probably one of those most deeply affected by the sudden death, wrapped her arms around me in a great hug and said “I needed that!”

Sometimes, what we need is less dignity. So maybe the next time the principles are up for review, we should leave a blank spot in place of that word and see what people come up with.

My suggestion: joy.

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