On October 18th of 2013 an eight-pound, four-ounce baby boy was born in the Baptist Woman’s Hospital in Memphis, TN. He was born, by all accounts, with little to no dignity. He was quite naked when he was born, his color was somewhere between purple and some other hue not often associated with human skin, and he was covered in all manner of liquids and substances that most dignified people would consider unsanitary.
At the moment of his birth this little boy’s family had no real home. Not really. They were rather between homes. Their belongings were mostly contained in several pick-up trucks and trailers that were, at that very moment, traveling north along a two-lane road on the outskirts of the city. A group of family-friends and friendly-family were doing the grunt work of moving the furniture, clothing, kitchen supplies, framed memories, and other assorted knick-knacks and stuffs that made up the material possessions of the boy’s family from an apartment complex in one small suburb to a rental house in another.
The family’s clothes, besides what they wore on their backs, were all sealed up in industrial size garbage bags, fresh from the coin-laundry down the street from their apartments where they had been laundered for the second-time in the past week. The furnishings that were strapped-down and rolling north in the aforementioned trucks all smelled strongly of various chemical mixtures designed to kill and repel a particular family of insects. But since the best anti-pest treatment offered by the apartments had not been enough to keep the bugs away for even forty-eight hours (hence, the re-laundering of clothes), the family had decided to break their lease and relocate. Thus it was that when Watson Wade entered the world, screaming and squirming in that particular way that only newborns do, he was born naked, homeless, and into a family on-the-run from bedbugs.
The moment of birth was wondrous and life-altering, but it was certainly not dignified.
Euthanasia is what society has named the act of ending a life prematurely in an effort to stave off pain and suffering. The trendy term for this is “dying with dignity,” which is a curious term since it carries with it a peculiar understanding of dignity. It implies that dignity can be lost, forfeited, or in some other way removed from a person who was once in possession of this thing or status thereby declaring, by implication, that dignity is not inherent but is something bestowed upon man by either his culture or his circumstances. Thus, a man is dignified only if his peers or betters declare him to be so. He is dignified only if circumstances allow for such a luxury. Remove from him the laurels of social approval and/or beneficial circumstances and you remove from him the privilege of dignity.
Young Watson Wade had the circumstances of his birth broadcast to the world that was his family’s circle of friends, family, and tolerated acquaintances through the Instagram account his parents shared. His father periodically took pictures throughout the process of the mother, himself, lunch, various guests, and even the ceiling and matched them with semi-witty captions in an effort to pass the time and keep their loved ones up to date. So at the moment of his birth, the young man already had a bit of mythology attached to his name. The dignity that, according to culture’s reasoning, he lacked when he was born, was handed to him at birth, pre-packaged and in mint condition upon his appearance. Assuming, of course, that a man and woman void of a proper, established home and who are separated from a nervous breakdown of epic proportions by only the slimmest of margins are worthy bestowers of such a gift as dignity. If not, however, there were a myriad of other admirers of Watson’s fair form and features to honor him with dignity’s prestige in their visits, gifts, and lavishing of love. These were people with belongings out of boxes and in their proper places, and who did not have to rub anti-itch balms on their own insect bites and the ones that peppered their two-year-old daughter’s slight frame. They were, individually and collectively, dignified and therefore able to determine if the human race’s newest member was also worthy of such an accolade.
If, however, dignity is something more than a man-made and governed construct; if it is something altogether different, something bestowed upon man by the Creator that, upon his crafting of humanity, declared him and all his kind to be in His own image, then the world must needs reconsider the idea of dying with or without dignity. A dignity endowed by the Creator is inherent to the person and therefore cannot be lessened by any circumstance or situation in which that person finds him or herself. Suffering cannot reduce dignity, nor can pain, oppression, sickness, or embarrassment. To embrace the idea that dignity is an erasable or reducible quality is a uniquely atheistic idea that rejects the notion of unique creation and assumes mankind has nothing except that which society grants him, in which case, dignity can not only be lost, but can be removed at the whim of the majority
Babies do many undignified things. They are completely without scruples, discretion, or concern for the welfare of others. They are, to be frank, very selfish beings. They have no regard for decorum and are apt to use public spaces to engage in very private bodily functions. They interrupt, even when they have absolutely nothing of worth to add to the conversation, and they have no concept of schedules, day/night cycles, or mealtime. As a whole, babies are quite without any trapping of dignity.
Except, of course, for the inherent, inalienable dignity all humans, newborns and bedridden included, share as co-bearers of Imago Dei. To be crafted in the image of God and declared as “very good,” as the Creator-God does in the closing verses of Genesis 1, is to be born dignified and valued. It means that all humans possess dignity for the simple fact that all humans are humans. And rather than being the type of false dignity that is lessened by suffering or hardship, Imago Dei dignity is made all the more clearer by it. For in His commands to look after the weak, infirmed, and helpless members of society, God places on the shoulders of humanity the responsibility to recognize the dignity of those who lack the ability to seize hold of it themselves. The man who needs the assistance of family or of nurses to relieve himself is not lacking in dignity, rather, the care shown by others is an affirmation of his dignity. Or, if the care be lacking, his seemingly undignified state is not an indictment against him, but against those who turn against true dignity in the pursuit of society’s frail replacement.
And this is where basing any argument for euthanasia or “mercy killing” on the idea of dying with dignity goes awry. It sees dignity as a covering that man projects upon himself and others to hide the natural state of being. In this sense, dignity is a covering of all the shameful and ultimately undesirable aspects of what it means to be a human. Its basic assumption is that man’s default status is that of indignity and that any label or recognition to the contrary must be earned or granted and then defended and maintained to the bitter end.
Death, then, is the ultimate reminder that all this world calls dignity is but a facade, a porcelain mask raised against the reality that control is an illusion and status a social construct. All are equal in death and so all are also equal in life. The idea that we can somehow "die with dignity" looks beyond the fact that there is no more honest force in the world than that of death, and to be dishonest in the face of it is to be dishonest in all of life. To desperately cling to this illusion of dignity is to die grasping, as if truth, that which has been clearly shown to be a lie.
The avoidance of a slow or painful death is not an act of dignified courage because it rejects, at its heart, the true dignity God has placed on each member of humanity. Dignity is not something that man can preserve, secure, or keep in regards to himself, but is something man is called to recognize, affirm, and defend in each other through any and every situation.