Back in the day when I worked inpatient mental health, I learned the importance of allowing people to maintain their dignity – and returning it to them when they felt they had lost their dignity. I learned this lesson one night at work. A very strong, very fit, but not fully in touch with reality gentleman in his late fifties or early sixties ended up having to be restrained and placed in a seclusion room. Throughout his restraint and after being placed in the seclusion room the man was extremely agitated, carrying on about how it wasn’t a fair, “fight.” Of course, it wasn’t a fight at all, and the principal concern in situations like that are that everyone remains safe and nobody gets hurt. One of the ways that it accomplished is, whenever possible, through the use of as many appropriately trained individuals as possible.
It occurred to me that what was really upsetting this man was that his dignity was damaged – in fact, he felt it had been taken away. Realizing this, I said to him, “It’s never a fair fight, because we want to keep everyone safe, but for what it’s worth you put up one hell of a fight.” Instantly he was quiet and more peaceful. His dignity had been returned, even though I wasn’t really sure what I said would have any meaning to him.
Last week it snowed here in Milwaukee. As is my habit, I not only cleared the snow from our sidewalk and driveway but also cleared the walk and drive of our 84-year-old neighbor. When I had finished I cleaned up his step with a shovel and returned to my yard to clear my steps. I heard him calling me, so I went back over to his house. He was insisting, as he has in the past, that I take money from him. I have always refused, and told him I didn’t want money. Truly, I just take care of his snow because that’s a neighborly thing to do – and I hope I am paying it forward. I’m thankful that I still can run my snow blower with all the back problems I have had. Surgery has improved my ability to do yard work, but I am still limited and recognize the day will come when I can’t do the things I can now.
The other day I started my usual refusal speech, but he was persistent. I soon realized it was a matter of his dignity when he said, “Please, take the money, it would mean a lot to me.” I remembered the man in the hospital years ago, and I took the money. He smiled broadly, and thanked me for taking the money and for looking out for his needs. The lesson here, I believe, is that every situation requires a unique response because every relationship is different and evolving. A good response today may not be a good response tomorrow, and only with mindfulness can we hope to respond appropriately.
Of course, next time there’s no way I’m taking the money. I have my dignity, too.